The competition rewards ambitious but controversial reforms aimed at improving struggling schools and closing the achievement gap.

The competition rewards ambitious but controversial reforms aimed at improving struggling schools and closing the achievement gap.

The U.S. Department of Education has named 18 states and the District of Columbia as finalists in the second round of the federal “Race to the Top” (RTTT) grant competition, giving them a chance to receive a share of $3.4 billion to implement broad school reforms. The July 27 announcement came just one day after a coalition of civil-rights organizations criticized the Obama administration’s approach to education reform, highlighting a growing disconnect between administration officials and critics of its education policies.

The 18 states that are finalists for the second round of RTTT grants are Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Carolina.

The competition rewards ambitious but controversial reforms aimed at improving struggling schools and closing the achievement gap. Dozens of states have passed new education policies to foster charter school growth and modify teacher evaluations, hoping to make themselves more attractive to the judges.

In a speech announcing the finalists at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Education Secretary Arne Duncan said a “quiet revolution” of education reform is taking place across the country.

“It’s being driven by great educators and administrators who are challenging the defeatism and inertia that has trapped generations of children in second-rate schools,” Duncan said.

Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia applied during the second round of the RTTT competition. Applications were screened by a panel of peer reviewers, and finalists will travel to Washington, D.C., in coming weeks to present their proposals.

The department expects 10 to 15 applicants ultimately will receive money, depending on whether large or small states win.

“Just as in the first round, we’re going to set a very high bar, because we know that real and meaningful change will only come from doing hard work and setting high expectations,” Duncan said.

All finalists scored higher than 400 points out of a possible 500 points in the initial evaluation. Duncan said the average score rose by 26 points between the first and second rounds.

In the past 18 months, 13 states have altered laws to foster the growth of charter schools, and 17 have reformed teacher evaluation systems to include student achievement scores, among other indicators.

Nearly 30 states have scrambled to adopt the Common Core State Standards, a state-led initiative that outlines what students should know by the time they graduate from high school, which is part of the scoring for RTTT.

New York, a finalist in the first round that did not win money, lifted its cap on the number of charter schools that can open from 200 to 460. Colorado passed laws that would pay teachers based on student performance and can strip tenure from low-performing instructors.

Georgia, a current finalist, didn’t change any laws but already had one of the most open charter policies in the country. Gov. Sonny Perdue was unsuccessful in getting performance pay for teachers passed, but lawmakers have agreed to form a study committee on the issue.

“While some have called this federal intrusion into state education policy, the goals of Race to the Top are well aligned to the direction Georgia is moving,” said Perdue, a Republican.

Two states, Tennessee and Delaware, were awarded a total of $600 million in the first round.

Their applications were praised for merit pay policies that link teacher pay to student performance and for garnering the support of teachers unions. Tennessee and Delaware also have laws that are welcoming to charter schools.

All the states that were finalists but did not win in the first round were finalists in the second round.

“Our performance in round one was a pretty strong hint that we would be a factor in round two,” said South Carolina State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex. “South Carolina is viewed as being on the cutting edge of making the changes that will make schools stronger.”

In Washington state, an applicant that was not named a finalist, state officials said they would continue ongoing education reform.

“We were committed, win or lose, to making sure we would carry out education reform our way, the Washington way,” Gov. Chris Gregoire and Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn said in a joint statement.

The administration’s emphasis on charter school expansion and using student test scores as leading indicators of teacher quality have put off many critics, including noted education historian Diane Ravitch.

Citing research that suggests charter schools perform no better than traditional public schools, Ravitch says charter schools are actually hurting public schools because they’re skimming off many of the students who are most motivated succeed.

The reforms also have drawn criticism from teachers’ unions, such as the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). AFT President Randi Weingarten says she supports reforming how teachers are evaluated, but relying mainly on student test scores is unfair.

In a statement on the finalists for round two of RTTT grants, Weingarten said:

“We congratulate the Race to the Top finalists, the best of which have made a concerted effort to bring together parents, educators, and community leaders to develop a thoughtful, student-focused approach to improving public education. AFT members in states like Florida, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island fought for and won a seat at the table, and their management counterparts engaged with them in a respectful, professional way. Fully recognizing that Race to the Top is far from perfect, our members nevertheless worked tirelessly to ensure that stakeholders in these states focused on students’ interests and offered solutions that make sense in their classrooms.”

However, Weingarten criticized the administration for including Washington, D.C., as a finalist. The D.C. school system made headlines last week when Chancellor Michelle Rhee fired 241 teachers, or 5 percent of the district’s total, under a new evaluation system that held them accountable for their students’ standardized test scores.

“The centerpiece of Race to the Top is meaningful teacher evaluations developed with teacher input and focused on student learning,” Weingarten said. “The Department of Education’s rhetoric, and its scoring rubric, purport to reward states that work with teachers to develop this kind of evaluation system. Logically, then, Washington, D.C.’s application, which includes an evaluation system developed and implemented solely by the chancellor, without regard to considerable criticism this year from frontline educators, should have ranked among the lowest. By naming D.C. a finalist, the Education Department is sending a message that is completely opposite to its earlier calls for states to engage all community members, including teachers, in the effort to improve schools. No one wants bad teachers, but no one should want bad teacher evaluation systems, either.”

Weingarten also blasted the administration for its practice of encouraging reforms through competitive grants–an approach that many others are concerned about, too.

“While we encouraged our local and state affiliates to be involved in every aspect of Race to the Top, we have always been troubled that this competition, by its very construct, leaves out millions of students across the country,” she said. “Rather than picking winners and losers, our education policies should represent a comprehensive approach focused on preparing every student to succeed in college, work, and life. … Even after today’s announcement, Race to the Top has delivered funds to just two states, Delaware and Tennessee. Meanwhile, schools across the nation face hundreds of thousands of educator layoffs, ballooning class sizes, cuts to after-school programs, four-day weeks, and the elimination of advanced placement, music, art, and P.E. classes.”

Civil-rights leaders, meanwhile, are worried that the administration’s reforms leave out many minority students. Eight civil-rights organizations, including the NAACP, contend in a document released July 26 that the Education Department is promoting ineffective approaches for failing schools.

“We want to be supportive, but more important than supporting an administration is supporting our children across the country and ensuring that they have an opportunity to learn,” said John Jackson, president of the Schott Foundation for Education, one of the groups that developed the document.

Duncan and a White House adviser met with the groups on July 26, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and the presidents of the National Urban League and NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. The groups distributed the document to members of Congress last week.

Duncan has called education “the civil rights issue of our generation,” and many of the reforms the administration has pushed aim to improve educational opportunities for the most vulnerable students.

“The administration is dedicated to equity in education, and we’ve been working very closely with the civil rights community to develop the most effective policies to close the achievement gap, turn around low performing schools, and put a good teacher in every classroom,” Education Department spokesman Justin Hamilton said.

The group’s proposal calls into question many of the department’s initiatives, including RTTT and a $3.5 billion program to turn around low-performing schools.

Citing federal data, the groups say just 3 percent of the nation’s black students and less than 1 percent of Latino students are impacted by the first round of RTTT. “No state should have to compete to protect the civil rights of their children in their states,” John Jackson said.

The document also proposes creating standards for equal access to early childhood education, effective teachers, college preparatory curriculum, and high-quality resources. And it takes a critical viewpoint of the administration’s approach to turn around failing schools, including closing them or replacing much of the staff.

“Low-performing schools will not improve unless we also change the resources, conditions, and approaches to teaching and learning within the schools or their replacements,” the document states.

But the plan has one glaring omission: no Hispanic groups signed on to support it.

Raul Gonzalez from the National Council of La Raza said his organization decided not to endorse the document because there were concerns with how the groups see charter schools. The civil-rights groups want charter schools to focus more on attracting diversity than the needs of the children in their community, Gonzalez said.

“To suggest that a charter school started by community members who want to help kids in their community cannot serve 100 percent Hispanic kids in a community that’s 100 percent Hispanic–that they should be penalized for that, or they shouldn’t be allowed to open up–that doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Still, he applauded the groups for pushing for more financial support for programs that would help increase parental involvement in schools.