ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.—New Mexico education officials were elated Thursday after getting word that the state will receive $25 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Education over four years to improve early education.

It was news the state had been waiting for since submitting its initial application for the national "Race to the Top" challenge in 2011.

New Mexico's plea started by telling federal education officials that its children are at risk since more than three-quarters of them enter elementary school without the necessary skills to succeed.

Gov. Susana Martinez's administration said the state will use the money to ensure that children are ready to learn when they start kindergarten and to improve reading skills of students from pre-kindergarten through the third grade.

Martinez said she received a call from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Thursday.

"He was very complimentary about the reform that is taking place in New Mexico. He actually said we could very well be a model for the country," the governor said.

New Mexico has historically finished near the bottom of many lists that center on educational measures of success, from graduation and literacy rates to proficiency in math and science.

The governor said the new focus the state will be able to put on early childhood education along with other recent reforms involving teacher evaluations and the state's new grading system for schools will help turn New Mexico's reputation around.

Federal education officials said New Mexico was among five states receiving $133 million through its Race to the Top competition, which last year awarded $500 million to nine states to improve early childhood education programs.

State officials said they narrowly missed out on the first round of funding last year. In all, only 14 states have received "Race to the Top" funding for early childhood learning.

The state will use the money to improve early childhood learning programs administered by the Public Education Department and the Children, Youth and Families Department. That includes pre-kindergarten and child care.

Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera said part of the grant will be used for professional development and training of teachers as well as assessments of children as they enter kindergarten to determine whether "they are ready to learn and where they are struggling."

State education officials said the grant focuses on early childhood learning because an overwhelming majority of students who drop out of school fail to learn to read by the time they enter the third grade.

"This is an investment in our foundation for success," Skandera said.

The state could start to receive some of the money in February.

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Associated Press Writer Barry Massey in Santa Fe contributed to this report.