Last week's word that Minnesota was one of nine winners of a federal Race to the Top competition for early childhood funding may have come as a happy surprise even to those who closely follow that topic.

Until the $45 million, four-year grant was awarded, many would have summed up 2011 as a year of frustration at the Legislature, followed by a puzzling, inconclusive fight over whether home-based child care providers should be allowed to form a union.

The union move has been stalled at least temporarily by a district court order. It has met with solid GOP opposition at the Legislature and telling neutrality from some key preschool advocates, who see the union push as a distraction.

The story at year's end is a better one, thanks to the efforts of Gov. Mark Dayton's administration, a business-backed foundation and key members of the state's congressional delegation. (Sen. Al Franken was particularly helpful.)

When the Legislature dropped the ball on a crucial component of efforts to improve early ed quality, they picked it up and ran with it.

As a result, chances are good that Parent Aware, a child care quality rating system developed and tested by the soon-to-sunset Minnesota Early Learning Foundation (MELF), will be in use statewide soon.

It's a voluntary system allowing child care providers to choose to be rated for preschool quality, and to receive curricular coaching if they participate.

The four-star Parent Aware ratings can be used by parents shopping for child care and, potentially, by policymakers seeking to direct scarce subsidies to proven programs.

Preserving Parent Aware after MELF's charter expires at this year's end involved some legal creativity by the Dayton administration. It invoked a 2009 law to direct a small 2011 early ed appropriation to the Parent Aware effort. Early childhood advocates say that move was crucial to winning Race to the Top money.

More good news on early ed came this week. Two more federal grants also will advance the cause of improving low-income families' access to effective preschools.

A portion of a $28 million Promise Neighborhoods award won by the Northside Achievement Zone will go for preschool scholarships for poor families.

And a $15 million Investing in Innovation grant was awarded to the University of Minnesota and its partner organizations to implement 33 Child-Parent Centers, a learning improvement strategy for low-income families developed in Chicago for pre-K through grade 3.

Together, these three streams of federal money are what Todd Otis of Ready 4 K called "system-builders." They represent the first serious increase in government spending on early education in Minnesota since the 1990s.

At a time of chronic state funding scarcity, they spur a quality-improvement agenda that has been slow to launch in Minnesota, despite considerable bipartisan support and proven results in MELF pilot projects.

In the long run, the new money ought to boost chances that Minnesota's low-income families will have access to effective preschool experiences for their children. Research has long documented the lasting payoff that results for those children and for society.

Economist Art Rolnick's work as senior vice president of the Minneapolis Federal Reserve found a 16 percent return on the investment of public money in high-quality preschool for low-income 3- and 4-year-olds.

That evidence, plus MELF's encouraging results, should satisfy critics. Yet resistance persists from the most conservative wing of the Republican Party, which argues that government should largely stay out of prekindergarten education.

Fortunately, many in that party have a more enlightened view of the public's interest in young learners. Their voices may be needed in coming days at the State Capitol, to see to it that the Race to the Top grant is put to its intended use.