SEATTLE -- Washington is one of nine states to win a share of $500 million in new federal dollars for early learning initiatives.
Sen. Patty Murray, who has encouraged the Obama administration to put more money into preschool education, told The Associated Press that her home state's success in the third round of Race to the Top would be announced at a Friday morning news conference at the White House.
The other winners are California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island.
The goal of the competition is to get more high needs children from birth to age 5 ready for kindergarten.
Washington state officials plan to use the money to expand two programs. One measures how ready kids are for kindergarten. The other works to improve preschools through a quality rating system. Some of the money would also pay for scholarships to send child care workers to college.
Washington state applied for $60 million, and while award amounts have not yet been released, it is expected that the state will get about the amount it requested, Murray's office said.
"This is a major victory for children and families across Washington state," said Murray, a former preschool teacher, in a written statement. "This award will help make sure that our state's children get the support they need to enter kindergarten ready to learn and ready to succeed.
Murray spoke to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in early May to push him to use a significant amount of Race to the Top dollars for early learning. Duncan announced the $500 million Early Learning Challenge later that month.
Earlier this month, Murray called Duncan to personally lay out the strengths of Washington state's application, her office said.
Washington won no money in the earlier rounds of Race to the Top, which was focused on K-12 education.
But the state failed to pass a key benchmark the federal government used in determining the winners of those competitions. Washington does not allow charter public schools and for the most part, the winners all do.
This time around, Washington didn't have any trouble qualifying for the federal money, but that doesn't mean the competition wasn't tough. Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico entered the competition.
Washington likely gained points for the quality and creativity of its early learning initiatives but expected to lose some points for the reach and longevity of these programs, said Bette Hyde, director of the Washington Department of Early Learning, when the application was submitted.
"This plan is what we want to do, and whether we get the money or not, we're doing this," she said.
The state's focus on early learning is one of the only direct results of Gov. Chris Gregoire's Washington Learns initiative in 2005. The initiative led to the establishment of the Department of Early Learning in 2006, which has gotten a lot of help from the private nonprofit Thrive by Five Washington and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
In her cover letter for the Race to the Top application, Gregoire emphasized that Washington is already working toward a great early learning system, despite the economy.
"We are building a world-class early learning system because it is the right thing to do and it is the smart thing to do," the governor wrote. She said the state already has a bold plan and it has momentum; all it needs now is more money.
Hyde believes both early learning programs will help Washington kids make progress on the school achievement gap between kids of different races and economic backgrounds.
"If children start behind, they very likely stay behind," Hyde said.