States vie for $280 million in federal early learning money

The initiative is designed to improve state preschool and early learning programs for children under 5 years of age. It is especially targeted to improving education for disadvantaged children and those from families with low incomes.

Race to the Top has been President Obama’s signature education plan. The administration describes it as an effort to reward state-based education efforts.

Conservatives have chided the initiative, though, saying that it gives the federal government too much power to interfere in education, which should be handled at the state and local level. They have complained that it essentially mandates that states sign onto Common Core standards, which many states have adopted.

The early learning portion of the competition was launched in fiscal 2011, and gave money to nine states. Five more states were given money in fiscal 2012.

“As a result of this investment, these states are building a more unified approach to supporting young children and their families,” the Department of Education said in announcing the new applications. “They are improving access to high-quality early learning and development programs and helping to ensure that more children enter kindergarten with the skills, knowledge and outlook toward learning they need to be successful in school and in life.”

Grants last for four years and range from $37.5 million to $75 million, depending on states’ plans and the number of children in the state from low-income families.

Winners will be announced in December.

The 16 states applying for the grants are Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont.