In a joint announcement this morning, the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services awarded Early Learning Challenge competitive grants to nine states: California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington.

Awards to the selected states will support innovations and reforms designed to build efficient, effective early learning systems. Applicants were asked to lay out plans to improve teacher quality, raise program standards, design student assessments, establish benchmarks for kindergarten readiness and build comprehensive data systems to track resources and outcomes.

Launched this year with a $500 million Congressional appropriation, the Early Learning Challenge competition drew 37 applications requesting over $2 billion in funding.

“The Challenge has already been a game-changer for states, where we saw a groundswell of support for investing in early learning and taking on this systems-building work,” said Cornelia Grumman, Executive Director of the First Five Years Fund. “It was bipartisan support too, with applications coming from 17 states with Republican governors and 18 states with Democratic governors. Regardless of party affiliation, leaders are recognizing the importance of investing in quality programs serving the youngest children. We just need resources to keep up with that demand.”

Even states that did not receive awards this round have indicated they will continue implementing pieces of their proposals. “This funding was critically important for the early learning field, but just as important was how it brought state leaders together and catalyzed changes that will endure regardless of funding decisions,” said Grumman.

The FY2012 appropriations bill currently pending final Congressional approval would make up to $550 million available for a possible second round of Early Learning Challenge grants. “Now that states know Congress is going to continue to support and encourage the innovation they’re driving, we’re going to keep seeing big reforms and real improvements,” said Grumman.