Fans of state-based early learning system building have something to cheer about today: the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will invite five high-scoring states to apply for a second round of Early Learning Challenge funding this year.

States that narrowly missed the cut in FY11—Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin—will be invited to apply for $133 million of FY12 funding from the Race to the Top initiative. These five states will each be eligible to apply for up to 50 percent of last year’s potential award amount.

The $133 million for 2012 Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge State grants will come from a larger $550 million fund provided by Congress through the Department of Education’s fiscal year 2012 budget, with additional dollars from the 2012 appropriation going toward a new district-level Race to the Top competition. Additional details will be posted on the Department of Education’s site later today, and FFYF will continue to share details as we learn them on our Starting Point blog.

The First Five Years Fund applauds the Administration for capitalizing on the impressive state-level systems-building momentum catalyzed by Round One of the competition. We agree with Secretaries Duncan and Sebelius: states are uniquely positioned to drive the large-scale innovations and efficiencies necessary to produce tangible outcomes for our most at-risk children.

As usual, there is no rest for the weary: the President’s budget request included $850 million for Race to the Top, and we have every reason to believe early learning will get another bite at the apple—if Congress allocates the funding. With the elections on the horizon and a lot of “ifs” still to unfold, it could be a long and wild ride, but we will do our best to keep you informed every step of the way.

UPDATE: The Department of Education’s press release is now available.