Winners in the first round of Race to the Top have been announced.

Winners in the first round of Race to the Top have been announced.

Broad support from key stakeholders, including elected officials, teachers’ unions, and local business leaders, was an important factor in awarding the first round of “Race to the Top” grants to Delaware and Tennessee, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) said March 29.

Those two states were the only ones chosen from among 16 finalists to receive part of an unprecedented $4.35 billion to help them improve student performance and transform struggling schools.

“We received many strong proposals from states all across America, but two applications stood out above all others: Delaware and Tennessee,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in announcing the winners. “Both states have statewide buy-in for comprehensive plans to reform their schools. They have written new laws to support their policies. And they have demonstrated the courage, capacity, and commitment to turn their ideas into practices that can improve outcomes for students.”

Delaware will receive $100 million and Tennessee $500 million to implement their comprehensive school-reform plans over the next four years. ED will have about $3.4 billion available for the second phase of the Race to the Top competition.

“We set a very high bar for the first phase,” Duncan said. “With $3.4 billion still available, we’re providing plenty of opportunity for all other states to develop plans and aggressively pursue reform.”

The $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund includes $4 billion for competitive grants to encourage statewide education reform and $350 million to help states improve the quality of their assessments. The competitive grants are designed to reward states that are leading the way in implementing comprehensive reforms across four key areas:

(1) Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace;

(2) Building data systems that measure student growth and inform teachers and principals how to improve instruction;

(3) Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most; and

(4) Turning around their lowest-performing schools.

Forty states and the District of Columbia submitted applications for the first phase of grants. Delaware and Tennessee were selected from among 16 finalists who presented their proposals to panels of peer reviewers earlier this month.

The winners beat out Colorado, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Carolina.

Federal officials will collect a second round of applications for the highly selective program by June 1. The states that were not picked this time can reapply for grants then.

To help states as they prepare their Phase 2 proposals, ED has made all Phase 1 applications, peer reviewers’ comments, and scores available on its web site; videos of states’ presentations will be posted next week.

“A lot of people said, ‘They’re going to end up giving it to lots of states’ and ‘the federal government can never really be selective.’ It turns out they actually were,” said Kati Haycock, president of the Education Trust, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based think tank. “They’re setting the bar this high that only two states met it, it sends a very powerful message.”

Officials said Georgia and Florida were third and fourth in the rankings for the grants, which means they have an advantage over other states for the second round of grants. Still, several of the finalists are already vowing to reapply for the money.

“We were honored to be one of only 16 finalists for this highly competitive grant, and we will immediately begin working on our application for the next round of funding,” said Deborah A. Gist, commissioner of elementary and secondary education in Rhode Island.

Observers say the winners took to heart the education reforms pushed by the Obama administration, including performance pay for teachers and welcoming charter school policies.

In Tennessee, lawmakers passed a new law during a special session in January that requires half of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on student achievement data–a key reform pushed by the Obama administration–as part of an effort to better their chances.

The new law also lifted the state’s cap on the number of charter schools that can open each year and set up a statewide school district specifically for failing schools. The changes were made with input from the Tennessee Education Association (TEA), the teachers’ union.

“This was a unique situation; I think the leadership of the TEA stood up and recognized the importance of what was about to happen, and in these extraordinary times we ought to change the way we do business,” said Tennessee House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner.

The Race to the Top money is part of President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus law, which provided $100 billion for schools. Obama has asked for $1.35 billion in his proposed budget for fiscal 2011 to continue the Race to the Top program and open it to individual school districts.

Some education observers have criticized the competition, saying the administration is out of touch because it is pushing reform at a time when states can barely afford basic necessities and are laying off teachers by the hundreds. Others argue that reforms such as charter schools and basing teach evaluations on student test scores are unfair and are hurting public education. (See “Critics take on high stakes testing accountability.”)

Links:

Race to the Top

The Education Trust