BRATTLEBORO -- Vermont is one of 16 states, along with the District of Columbia, applying for federal early education Race to the Top grants.

Vermont pulled out of earlier rounds for the U.S. Department of Education K-12 Race to the Top grants, with education officials explaining that the federal program would have forced the state to change too many of its own policies and systems to meet requirements of the federal grant program.

Gov. Peter Shumlin's director of Special Projects and Intergovernmental Affairs, Aly Richards, said the early education grant is much less restrictive and also aligns with many of the governor's plans for expanding the state's pre-kindergarten education system.

"There are no strings attached to these grants," Richards said. "This program is more in line with the work we are already doing in our early education system."

Vermont expects to hear in December if it will be awarded the four-year, $37.5 million federal grant.

Other states included in this round of the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Competition include New Hampshire, New York and Connecticut.

Vermont applied for the first round of early education grants when 14 other states were awarded the federal funding.

Richards said between three and eight of the states will receive the early education grants in the second round.

The Obama Administration says the $280 million federal early education grant program will improve the quality of early learning and development programs and close educational gaps for children with high needs.

The program also supports states' efforts to design and implement an integrated system of early learning and development programs.

Shumlin made early education a priority during his 2013 budget address, calling for the Legislature to redirect almost $17 million toward helping low-income Vermonters pay for child care.

The governor was only able to get a portion of his original request and a pre-K bill that was being debated during the final days of the legislative session failed to win support.

The federal Race to the Top competition will be weighed in Washington as about 250 early education professionals from throughout Vermont take part in the governor's Early Childhood Summit this week in Montpelier.

Shumlin called on the agencies of Human Services and Education to work with early education professionals at the summit to come up with a framework for the upcoming legislative session to further advance early education in Vermont.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the Race to the Top money will be used to help coordinate state early education systems across agencies and strengthen program performance rating systems.

The federal money also can be used for professional development, to build data measurement systems and to develop common standards.

Richards said Vermont is already putting resources into all of these aspects of the early education system and she said state officials are looking forward to the December announcement for this round of the federal grant recipients.

"We are focused on early learning in the state and the timing for this grant is perfect," Richards said. "We are hoping to come out of the summit with a framework to move forward, and at a time when we are strapped for cash this money would be a way to jump-start what we have begun and finish what we want to do."

Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at 802-254-2311 ext. 279 or hwtisman@reformer.com. Follow Howard on Twitter @ReformerHoward.