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 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 would 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.

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