By Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio, Tim Pugmire, Minnesota Public Radio
Minnesota is getting $45 million in federal education money from the competitive grant program known as Race to the Top.
The White House announced Friday that nine states will receive awards in its third rounds of such grants. This time, the applications focused specifically on efforts to boost early childhood education.
The third round was the charm for Minnesota. State officials were soundly rejected in their first attempt for a Race to the Top application, and they didn't even bother applying in round two.
However, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan explained in a conference call with reporters that each competition was judged independently. He also said states' previous applications were not a factor.
The Obama administration has used the program to reward states that enact significant education reforms. Last year, the administration handed out $4 billion in grants for K-12 improvements.
Duncan said the latest grant winners, who were chosen from 35 applications, will help show the rest of the nation how to prepare young children for learning.
"Nine states will lead the way in transforming early learning programs and services from a patchwork of disconnected programs with uneven quality into integrated systems that truly and consistently prepare children for success in school and life," said Duncan.
The goal of the grants is to get more children up to speed academically by the time they reach kindergarten. The money will benefit all early learning programs throughout the state.
At a Capitol news conference, Gov. Mark Dayton described Minnesota's award as great news in several ways.
"It's a great day for everyone who cares about the future of our children," said Dayton. "And it's a great day for Minnesota, because it's a day that Minnesota has been recognized nationally, where we should be, as one of the preeminent leaders in the nation when it comes to such important areas as early childhood education."
Minnesota applied for, and will receive, $45 million. Of that amount, $20 million is targeted to high-poverty areas in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Itasca County and on the White Earth Reservation. The rest is designated for oversight and accountability measures, including a new statewide ratings system to help parents shop for quality child care providers.
Minnesota schools have one of the nation's widest racial achievement gaps. State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said helping children at an early age can help narrow that gap.
"This is absolutely an essential element to us closing the achievement disparities among our children," said Cassellius. "So that we can be sure to absolutely guarantee that promise of our Constitution -- that all children will receive an excellent education and have great opportunities to successfully participate in Minnesota."
The grant was also welcome news to a key GOP lawmaker. But state Rep. Pat Garofalo of Farmington, chair of the House Education Finance committee, said the Dayton administration will need the help of Republicans moving forward on early education improvements.
"Clearly the governor has some authority in this area and he has some power. But he doesn't have complete power to enact the expenditure of these funds," said Garafalo. "So, we look forward to collaborating with the governor and getting this program implemented in Minnesota."
Gov. Dayton said he was not sure whether any legislative action is needed to implement the federal grant. He suggested the matter could instead go before the Legislative Advisory Commission for approval before the start of the 2012 Legislative session. The session is set to begin on January 24.
The other winners announced Friday at the White House are California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington.
BIG RANGE OF QUALITY OF PRE-K PROGRAMS
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 application.
Last month, President 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.
(Kimberly Hefling of The Associated Press contributed to this report from Washington.)