New Mexico – New Mexico was rejected and Texas did not even apply. The U.S. Department of Education named 16 finalists Thursday in the first round of its "Race to the Top" competition, which will deliver $4.35 billion in school reform grants.
Selected from a pool of 41 applicants are: Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee. The winners will be chosen in April, and a second round of applications accepted in June.
"These states are an example for the country of what is possible when adults come together to do the right thing for children," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said.
The grants are designed to reward states that have adopted and will continue implementing innovative reforms to improve student performance. The money is part of President Barack Obama's economic stimulus law, which provided an unprecedented $100 billion for schools. Much of that has gone toward preventing teacher layoffs and addressing other budget concerns. The $4.35 billion "Race to the Top" fund is targeted specifically for education reform.
Applications were read and scored by panels of five peer reviewers. Those with the highest average score were selected to visit Washington later this month to present their proposals. The Education Department said it expects no more than half of the money to be awarded in the first phase of the competition.
Duncan said they are setting a high bar in the first phase and anticipate few winners.
"But this isn't just about the money," Duncan said. "It's about collaboration among all stakeholders, building a shared agenda, and challenging ourselves to improve the way our students learn."
The money may go to a handful of states. In a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Duncan said it was a "fair statement" to anticipate a total in the single digits.
One standout rejection: California, where districts have laid off thousands of teachers and slashed academic programs in light of steep budget cuts. Lawmakers there wrangled for weeks before passing a package of school reform measures designed to make the state more competitive for the funding.
"This decision by the Obama administration demonstrates that we need to be more aggressive and bolder in reforming our education system," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said.
The Education Department asked states to concentrate their proposals on four areas prioritized in the Recovery Act: adopting standards and assessments to better prepare students for careers and college; getting high-quality teachers into classroom; turning around low-performing schools; and creating data systems to track performance.
States also were required to be legally permitted to link student performance data to teacher evaluations a measure that created resistance among some teacher unions. Unions also have expressed concern that not all of the "Race to the Top" finalists included teacher input in forming education policy in their applications.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federal of Teachers, said real change can only succeed if teachers and administrators work together.
"As the process moves forward, we hope that every state will work to ensure that teachers' participation and input is not simply sought but actually incorporated as an integral part of every stage of this process," she said.
North Carolina, one of the states named a finalist, sought $4.69 million over four years to expand use of computer-based assessments that evaluate students throughout a school year.
"Every child in this state must graduate prepared to go on to college, a career or technical training," Gov. Beverly Perdue said. "And we can accomplish that through innovation and rethinking the way we track our students' progress."
Critics have questioned the timing, saying the administration is out of touch with state budget needs in putting forward billions in reform at a time when many districts can barely afford basic necessities.
Florida's K-12 education budget is facing a roughly $1 billion shortfall, including a $778 million reduction in local property taxes because of falling real estate values. The rest is due mainly to increased enrollment from an influx of Haitian children displaced by the earthquake there and former private school students no longer able to afford tuition.
"You can always say now is not the right time for change," said Amy Wilkins, vice president for government affairs and communications at The Education Trust. "But the fact is that improving education is sort of a linchpin in improving the economic health of the country. So we have to do this now."
Questions have also been raised about the department's approach in rewarding states that have a history of past success through education innovation, rather than those now looking to enact reform.
"Yet there is some merit to the argument that we only learn by bringing to light what best practices look like," said Brenda Welburn, executive director of the National Association of School Boards of Education.
Eastern states dominated the list of first round finalists, with just one, Colorado, named from the West.
All the winners except Delaware and South Carolina got financial help from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in preparing their "Race to the Top" application. The foundation gave many states grants of up to $250,000 each to pay for a consultant to help them craft their application.
Federal spending accounts for just 10.5 percent of elementary and secondary education funding. And while the "Race to the Top" money is a small slice of the $100 billion in stimulus education funding, observers said it is significant.
In Wisconsin, one of the states that applied but was not named a finalist, Gov. Jim Doyle called the announcement "a wake up call to many" and urged legislators to push for reform.
States that have been selected unanimously rejoiced at being included in the "Sweet 16."
"Thank goodness Georgia is at the dance," Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue said. "We're ecstatic."
Contributing to this report are Associated Press writers Bill Kaczor in Tallahassee, Dorie Turner in Atlanta, Donna Gordon Blankinship in Seattle, Gary D. Robertson in Raleigh and Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis.
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