Maryland is one of nine states that will share a total of $500 million in federal grants to improve early childhood education, Obama administration officials announced Friday morning.

The state will use the money -- up to $50 million over four years -- to strengthen its pre-kindergarten programs, particularly for English language learners, poor children and children with disabilities.

Research has demonstrated that children who attend high-quality preschool programs are more likely to graduate from high school and hold a job, and less likely to go to prison.

“Providing high quality programs to our youngest learners offers us our best chance at eliminating the achievement gaps that plague every education system,” Maryland’s Interim Superintendent of Schools Bernard Sadusky said in a statement. 

Thirty-five states and the District applied for the competitive grant, which is administered by the Education Department and the Department of Health and Human Services. The other eight winners are California, Delaware, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington state. 

This is the second multimillion-dollar grant Maryland has won under Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, in which states compete for federal dollars by outlining plans for improving schools’ effectiveness. In August 2010, the state won $250 million for reforms in elementary and secondary schools.