SACRAMENTO (KCBS) – California has been awarded $52.6 million in federal grants to improve the state’s early childhood education programs.

The U.S. Department of Education announced on Friday that California is one of nine states that will share $500 million in Early Learning Challenge Grants, part of the “Race to the Top” competition.

California education officials said they will hold meetings on Monday to try to figure out how to dole out the funds.

KCBS’ Holly Quan Reports:

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the money will play an important role in closing achievement gaps.

“If we’re going to be serious about actually closing achievement gaps, not just talking about them and admiring the problem, nothing is more important than getting our babies off to a good start,” said Duncan.

California State Board of Education President Michael Kirst said the money is greatly needed by the state.

“We convinced the federal government that we’re such a big state with such a diverse landscape that we needed to come up with a regional strategy that builds on local success and not a centralized, one-size-fits-all study,” said Kirst.

The “Race to the Top” initiative has states competing for federal education dollars in exchange for changes the Obama administration favors. Last year, $4 billion in grants were handed out focusing on K-12 education.

In California, there are approximately 1.2 million children under the age of five currently in early childhood programs.

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