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Maryland, 8 other states win early learning grant

WASHINGTON — Nine states will share $500 million in grant money won in a high-profile competition intended to jump-start improvements in early childhood programs, the Obama administration announced Friday.

California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington state will see funding for innovative efforts in often-overlooked pre-K schooling.

“Nothing is more important than getting our babies off to a good start,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Friday at the White House.

The money to aid the nation’s youngest learners is part of the administration’s cornerstone education initiative — the “Race to the Top” grant competition. It has states competing for federal dollars to create programs intended to make schools more effective in exchange for education initiatives it favors. Last year, it handed out $4 billion in similar grants focused on K-12 education.

“Education must be our national mission,” President Barack Obama said in a written statement. “Today, we’re acting to strengthen early childhood education to better prepare our youngest children for success in school and in life.”

The goal of this competition is to get more children from birth to age 5 ready for kindergarten. Thirty-five states along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico applied for the chance to win between about $50 million to $100 million apiece in prize money. The winnings are to help build statewide systems that affect all early learning programs, including child care, Head Start centers and public or private preschools.

“We’re looking for kids to really start their learning process before kindergarten,” said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland Department of Education.

Billions are spent annually in America on early education programs, but the quality and availability of those programs varies greatly. Roughly 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.

Kids who attend quality early education programs have been shown to do better in school, be less likely to spend time in prison later and to make more money as adults. But children from low-income families who start kindergarten without any schooling are estimated to start school 18 months behind their peers, a gap that is extremely difficult to overcome.

To win, states were asked to demonstrate a commitment to making such programs more accessible, coordinated and more effective. Providing professional development for teachers and creating ways to assess the education level of kids entering kindergarten were among the areas states were asked to focus on in their applications.

Duncan was joined at the White House by Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, whose agency helped run the competition. HHS oversees the federal Head Start program, which provides early education to nearly 1 million low-income children.

Sebelius said the goal is to provide high-profile encouragement to programs that improve teaching skills, encourage healthy eating and exercise and get parents — especially in low-income neighborhoods — more directly involved.

“By pushing everyone … to raise their game, we intend to foster innovation in early education programs around the country,” Sibelius said.

Last month, Obama announced new rules that require lower-performing Head Start programs to compete for funding. The Education Department also has proposed creating a new office to oversee the grants and better coordinate early learning programs.