More Minnesota families will be able to pay for quality child care and check a rating system when they're shopping for child care providers, thanks to a potential $45 million boost from federal money announced Friday.

Scoring the competitive federal grant in Minnesota is a "game changer" for Sondra Samuels, who runs Northside Achievement Zone, a nonprofit that prepares students for school in north Minneapolis.

"This couldn't come at a better time," she said, adding that 71 percent of the children she sees aren't ready for kindergarten. "When we can give them a great head start we get a great return in investment."

The money will bolster efforts to prepare more Minnesota kids for school. Nearly half of students statewide aren't ready for kindergarten, according to a report released last month. The report also revealed that Minnesota's academic achievement gap between white and nonwhite students -- one of the largest in the nation -- begins early.

Minnesota was one of nine states to win part of $500 million in Race to the Top grants aimed at early education. The competitive race was a marathon, not a sprint, acknowledging work that states like Minnesota have already done to boost early education.

"It's an incredible opportunity," said Laurie Davis, policy director at the Minnesota Early Learning Foundation, who helped write and oversee the 700-page application. "To be recognized at the federal level is a huge deal. ... This clearly was a competition to reward states that had done a lot of groundwork before the competition."

Setting a high bar

The U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services launched the early learning grants earlier this year as part of the Race to the Top sweepstakes. In a conference call with reporters Friday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the nine states had "groundbreaking applications" that "set a high bar."

"Early learning is absolutely critical for our nation's long-term economic competitiveness," he said.

Winning states, he added, stood out for the work they've already done as well as the quality of their plans.

At a news conference, Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said the grant will help Minnesota families. "We've said all along, our children have to be ready for kindergarten, they have to start the race earlier and get to that starting line, so that they can finish successfully," she said.

Minnesota was ranked seventh of the nine and applied for $45 million -- the smallest amount of the winners. Davis said they'll be notified of the amount next week. The four-year infusion of money will begin next month, accelerating expansion of programs that the state is already piloting.

Helping local groups

White Earth, Itasca County, St. Paul's Promise Neighborhood and Samuels' group in Minneapolis will be among the first to benefit from the grant because of the high poverty among their students and the progress they have made starting programs.

Scholarships will go to families unable to afford quality child care. Parent Aware, the rating system that the state is piloting for parents to see how a child care provider rates, will expand statewide starting with northwestern Minnesota, said Duane Benson, executive director of the Early Learning Foundation. Child care centers that opt in to Parent Aware will receive extra training.

"It will impact the whole state," he said.

Minnesota applied for the grant last October along with 34 other states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. It followed the state's failed bid in 2010 for part of $4 billion in federal sweepstakes to boost student achievement; the state didn't apply in a second round following political wrangling over measures needed to strengthen the bid.

Other state winners are California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington. Next week, winners of $200 million in grants for K-12 education reform, which Minnesota didn't apply for, will be announced.

Staff writer Jim Ragsdale contributed to this report. Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141