WASHINGTON — Nine states won a collective $500 million Friday from the federal government to help make pre-K and other early learning programs more accessible and better capable of narrowing the achievement gap between those who start kindergarten without any formal schooling and those who do.

California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington state were announced as winners at the White House.

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

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.

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.

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.

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

It's like "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," she said.

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.

The top scoring state in the competition was North Carolina, Duncan said. The state's plan included the creation of a "transformation zone" in the distressed northeastern corner of the state where specialty services would be available.

Other states took similar but different approaches in their comprehensive proposals. Massachusetts, for example, said it will use the funding to help conduct better and earlier screenings of children's learning needs. And, Rhode Island plans to connect health care and early learning providers.

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.


Associated Press writer Alex Dominguez in Baltimore contributed to this report.


Online: Education Department: http://www.ed.gov/

Department of Health and Human Services: http://www.hhs.gov/


Kimberly Hefling can be followed at http://twitter.com/khefling