The Maryland Department of Education this week applied for a piece of a competitive $500 million federal grant program to improve early learning opportunities for more children.

The grant is part of the second round of the Obama administration’s trademark Race to the Top education reform program. Maryland already won $250 million in August 2010 during the first round of the competition, which is funding many changes, including updated teacher evaluations and standardized tests.

The funding, up to $50 million administered over four years, would come at a time that many jurisdictions are cutting education spending. Maryland officials hope to use the money to improve the state’s child care rating system and early childhood assessments, as well as align early learning academic standards to new common standards being adopted around the country.

Decisions about the awards will be announced late December, and implementation would start this January.