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Dayton: Minn. will apply for new 'Race to the Top' funds

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Gov. Mark Dayton on Wednesday directed the state's education department to apply for the federal "Race to the Top" program, just hours after the Obama administration announced new funding for the initiative.

The Obama administration said it will award $500 million in competitive grants to states with the best plans for pre-kindergarten programs.

"We are really looking forward to this," Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius told MPR News.

The focus on early childhood education is a departure from the previous two rounds of Race to the Top, which had a wider scope across all levels of K-12 education.

Advocates for early childhood education were pleased with the news. 

"For us not to be part of that is like saying we don't have a problem; we can't use the help; and none of those statements are true," said Duane Benson, a former Republican state senator and executive director of the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation. 

Benson says pilot programs have already shown how quality pre-kindergarten interventions boost achievement later in life. 

Benson has pushed for lawmakers to create a rating system for early childhood programs in Minnesota, modeled on one of those pilots his group is overseeing in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood.

The proposal to create the statewide rating system was removed from the K-12 education funding bill that was vetoed this week by Dayton. Benson says he still thinks it can win approval this year, as does Cassellius.

"We believe we have bipartisan support for this; we believe the business community has been very vocal about this with legislative leaders," said Cassellius. "And we very much hope that in our future negotiations that they will also see the value of investing in our youngest learners."

State Rep. Patrick Garofalo, R-Farmington, who chairs the House Education Finance Committee, also supports early childhood proposals at the Capitol. While those provisions were removed from a budget bill, Garofalo said Wednesday there's likely enough support for early childhood to pass as its own bill, not tied to a budget agreement.

"Race to the Top has been a big driver in fostering innovation in the states, and if it can do for early childhood what it's done for K-12, I think that's good news for Minnesota," said Garafalo.

The new funds will be the third round of Race to the Top awards. Minnesota lost out during the first round and didn't apply in the second round.

In all, Congress appropriated $700 million for this new Race to the Top round; the additional $200 million is being set aside to allow the nine finalist states that did not win grants in the earlier rounds to compete again. That means Minnesota won't be eligible to apply for that portion of the funding. 

The states that are eligible are Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and South Carolina.