States Share $500 Million in Race to the Top Early Learning Grant

Nine states are set to receive a cut of $500 million from the federal government after winning the Race to the Top Early Learning Grant, writes Kimberly Hefling at the Associated Press.

California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington state have received the cash to aid them in their quest to make pre-K and other early learning programs more accessible.

"Nothing is more important than getting our babies off to a good start," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

The money will be used by states to help them narrow the achievement gap between those who start kindergarten without any formal schooling and those who do.

Thirty-five states along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico applied for the chance to win a portion of the prize money.

Children from low-income families who start kindergarten without any schooling are estimated to start school 18 months behind their peers. Currently, half of all 3-year-olds and about a quarter of 4-year-olds do not attend preschool, said Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

Sharon Lynn Kagan, co-director of the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia University, said that the contest has helped jumpstart what she describes as one of the most exciting times in early education in 40 years.

Kagan described it "an alarm has gone off and finally everyone is waking up to what the research is showing for a very, very long time about the importance of intervening with very high quality programs for all young children."

Winning states were said to have demonstrated a commitment to making preschool programs more accessible, coordinated and effective. The money will now be used by the states to provide professional development for teachers and create ways to assess the education level of kids entering kindergarten.

The top scoring state in the competition was North Carolina, Duncan said, which is now set to create a "transformation zone" in the distressed northeastern corner of the state where specialty services would be available.

Massachusetts will use the funding to help conduct better and earlier screenings of children's learning needs. Rhode Island is set to implement a plan that connects health care and early learning providers.

Earlier in the fall, Obama announced new rules that require lower-performing Head Start programs to compete for funding. Another proposal put forward is the prospect of creating a new office for the Department of Education to oversee the grants and better coordinate early learning programs.

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