Early learning leaders in states may feel a little like thoroughbreds in those agitated few minutes just before the starting gun blasts and the race gates fling open.

At stake: $500 million. The Obama Administration last week announced states could compete for grants to improve their early learning systems, from birth to age 5. And almost no one paid a whit of attention. Case in point: The New York Times story about the announcement focused on the $200 million that would go to runner-up states in the original K-12-centric Race to the Top competition, while the new $500 million Early Learning Challenge was down near the bottom, almost in the footnote department.

That just means we need to create our own fanfare to bring attention to this significant opportunity. Some states may even need a little help rattling their governors’ cages to compete for this.

We’re here to help. No, we don’t have any special inside information. But we do have tips, advice and a few tools to help state advocates prepare even before more precise details about the competition emerge later this summer. We’ll be sharing these tips with you in an ongoing “Advocate’s Checklist” that we’ll be sending out, posting on this website, tweeting, and linking to on our Facebook page. Got a great tip? Send them our way and we’ll share them.

Full disclosure: FFYF’s sole interest in this competition is to make sure it leads to permanent, high-quality systems in every state. We want as many strong state applications as possible, and we want an amazing cohort of winners who will lead the nation on how to build high quality, coherent, aligned early learning systems.

We may not know exactly how this competition will be designed, but we do know this: The Administration has stated it would be about “increasing access to quality early learning programs for low income and disadvantaged children, designing integrated and transparent systems that align their early care and education programs, bolstering training and support for the early learning workforce, creating robust evaluation systems to document and share effective practices and successful programs, and helping parents make informed decisions about care for their children.” Other education insiders are weighing in with their thoughts about the competition over at the National Journal’s experts’ blog.

When the application is released later this summer, there will likely be less than three months, and possibly more like two, to apply. So what could you be doing in preparation this summer?

  • Start talking to folks in your governor’s office to gin up enthusiasm to apply for the Early Learning Challenge. Send a letter to the editor to your local newspaper urging your state to participate.
  • Make sure this is Topic #1 at your next state Early Learning Council meeting, or whatever other organizing body your state will use to apply.
  • Start inviting key officials on site visits. Make sure you reach out to those outside the early learning field.
  • Help push your state to start considering who should be on its core grant writing team.
  • Help push your state to start identifying an actual grant writer.
  • Start lining up local or regional funders to support your application.

And if that’s not enough to do this summer, we have good news for you! Consider yet two more major federal grant opportunities to keep you tethered to your office computer, announced just last week:

Investing in Innovation (i3): The U.S. Department of Education invited a second round of applications for this $150 million competition. Applications are due Aug. 2, and awards will be made no later than Dec. 31.

Home Visiting: HHS announced a new competition for $99 million for the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program (MIECHV). This competitive program is in addition to the $150 million that will be awarded by formula later this year, and applications are due July 1, 2011.

Best and good luck to all,