New federal grants will encourage states to develop high-quality early childhood learning programs.

A new state-level grant competition will direct $500 million in federal funding to improve child care and early childhood learning as part of the Obama administration’s signature Race to the Top program.

The Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge encourages states to make the best possible use of current federal and state investments in early childhood learning by creating comprehensive plans to transform early learning centers with better coordination and clearer learning standards.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, whose departments will administer the competition jointly, challenged the broader innovation community—including leading researchers, high-tech entrepreneurs, foundations, nonprofit organizations, and others—to engage with the early childhood learning community to close the school readiness gap.

States applying for challenge grants will be encouraged to increase access to high-quality early childhood learning programs for low-income and disadvantaged children, design integrated and transparent systems that align their early care and education programs, bolster training and support for the early learning workforce, create robust evaluation systems to document and share effective practices and successful programs, and help parents make informed decisions about care for their children.

Race to the Top is President Obama’s signature education program, and the administration has made clear that it wishes to boost the quality of early childhood learning and health.

Duncan and Sebelius pointed to research showing that high-quality early childhood learning programs lead to long-lasting positive outcomes for children, including increased rates of high school graduation, college attendance, and college completion. Just 40 percent of 4-year-olds in America are currently enrolled in preschool programs or early learning centers. The most recent report from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) indicates that, for the first time in a decade, states are reducing some of their key investments in early childhood learning.

“Investing in early learning is one of the best things we can do as a nation,” Duncan said, calling the funding a “game-changer” in advancing birth through third-grade learning.