HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania and New Jersey are among a half-dozen states chosen to receive millions of dollars in federal grants to bolster early childhood education and better prepare children for kindergarten.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius announced Thursday that the six states will get $280 million as part of the 2013 "Race to the Top" challenge, a contest created by the U.S. Department of Education to help states improve educational programs.

The six were among 16 that applied for the money.

The Corbett administration said Pennsylvania would receive $51.7 million, while New Jersey would receive $44.3 million. The other states that won funding for their plans to innovate their educational programs are Michigan, Georgia, Kentucky, and Vermont.

In Pennsylvania, which last won Race to the Top funds in 2011, Gov. Corbett said the money would be used over the next four years to level the educational playing field for high-risk children, as well as increase the number of students able to read and do math at grade level by the time they finish the third grade.

"High-quality early learning programs are known to improve student achievement and prepare students to enter kindergarten," said Corbett, adding that the grant "will help us to further improve and expand our existing quality programs."

State education officials said major initiatives that will be funded by the grant include establishing 50 early childhood education "innovation zones" to develop strategies to support and engage families in the lowest performing-elementary schools, and launching four "Governor's Institutes" that will bring together nearly 3,000 prekindergarten to third-grade educators to share experiences and strategies.

"Quality matters," said Barbara Minzenberg, Pennsylvania's deputy secretary for the Office of Child Development and Early Learning. "It makes a difference in outcomes for children."

At the heart of New Jersey's plan for the money is developing a statewide rating system called "Grow NJ Kids," now a pilot program in four counties. Through Grow NJ Kids, early-learning program administrators will perform self-evaluations to help determine the overall quality of their programs. Ratings will be assigned to each program to help parents in their decision-making process.

Grow NJ Kids will expand from 56 programs to 1,790 early learning and development programs over four years, New Jersey education officials said.

The state will also set up a training academy to coordinate professional development programs for high-needs children. The academy, among other things, will train 20,000 early childhood educators and staff on implementing Grow NJ Kids.