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9 States Win Race to Top Early Learning Grants

UPDATED

Nine states will share $500 million in Race to the Top early learning grants, the U.S. Department of Education confirmed this morning.

They are: California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Washington. They will get grants ranging from $50 million to $100 million, based on the state's student population, to significantly improve early-education programs in their states. North Carolina was ranked No. 1 by the outside peer reviewers who judged the competition. California, by at least one account, was the surprise dark-horse winner. A must-read New America Foundation blog post also agrees that California—and even North Carolina—were surprises.

"Investing in early learning is one of the smartest things we can do," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said during the White House announcement of the winners this morning. "I'm confident these nine states will lead the transformation."

Duncan added that there were far more stellar applications than he could fund, and he and others in the Obama administration indicated they would like to fund more states if they can. And indeed, it seems the Education Department will get another $550 million in Race to the Top money in fiscal 2012, according to a budget deal just reached by congressional negotiators. However, later in a conference call with reporters, Duncan would not commit to using that money for early learning, saying he didn't know yet what the focus of future competitions would be.

Six of the nine state early-learning grantees are repeat Race to the Top winners, so they're only adding to their bounty (and to the long list of obligations and promises they must live up to): Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, and Rhode Island.

Do these states have the capacity to implement two big education overhauls, one of their K-12 systems, and the other of their early education programs? Duncan noted, in response to a question during a media call about Delaware, that this competition was judged independently of any other. "I have tremendous confidence in Delaware's leadership," he said this afternoon. "None of this is easy. It takes significant change."

The winning nine states emerged from a field of 37 competitors for early-learning grants.

"This is absolutely the missing puzzle piece for our work in Rhode Island," Commissioner Deborah Gist, whose state won a bigger Race to the Top grant last year, told my colleague Lesli Maxwell at this morning's White House event. Rhode Island will likely get $50 million.

Notably missing from the winners' circle: Colorado, which was considered a front-runner by some to win. If you'll remember, it was a favorite to win last year's big Race to the Top competition, but lost out to other states considered less reform-y, such as Hawaii and New York. That's a double ouch. The New America Foundation is also surprised that Pennsylvania and Oklahoma weren't winners, either.

To win, states had to craft rating systems for their programs, appropriate standards and tests for young children, and clear expectations for what teachers should know.

The grants are made possible through an additional $700 million Congress set aside for the Obama administration's Race to the Top brand in the fiscal 2011 budget deal reached earlier this year. While $500 million went to early learning, the other $200 million was offered to the nine finalists that did not win last year's $4 billion general education-reform competition. The finalists, seven of which chose to apply for a small piece of the $200 million consolation prize, had to pick a part of their original application to pursue, with a special emphasis on the STEM, or science, technology, engineering, and math, subjects. Those winners could be announced as early as next week.

Interestingly, the early-learning winners don't largely reflect the predictions of the New America Foundation, which detailed the frontrunners and laggards in an August analysis. Of the 11 frontrunners, only three won: North Carolina, Maryland, and Ohio.

"I'm happy that people finally understand that child care is education," Flora L. Gee, the director of the Greenbelt Children's Center, told my colleague Lesli. Gee helped her state, Maryland, prepare its winning application.

There was no talk of the losers at today's White House event.

"This early learning challenge will redefine the future of early childhood education in this country," said Linda K. Smith, the deputy assistant secretary for early childhood development under the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which partnered with the Education Department in running the grant competition. "We now have a foundation in place for moving forward."

You can read the winning state's applications (and all applications, for that matter) here.

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