The goal of the grants is to get more children from birth to age 5 ready for kindergarten.

Nine states have won a collective $500 million from the federal government to help make pre-kindergarten 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 on Dec. 16.

“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.

For more news on early learning programs, see:

Report highlights importance of early childhood education

University researchers aim to improve early learning in STEM

States slash early childhood programs as budgets bleed

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 high-quality early education programs have been shown to do better in school, be less likely to spend time in prison later, and 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.