Tuesday, March 30, 2010
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Illinois loses out on 1st $600 million in education grants

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[March 30, 2010]  ATLANTA, Ga. -- The U.S. Department of Education on Monday awarded Delaware and Tennessee $600 million as part of the competitive "Race to the Top" program to help states improve student performance and transform struggling schools.

The states, selected from 16 finalists, received the grants in the first round of the $4.35 billion federal competition designed to encourage the use of innovative educational programs.

Tennessee will get $500 million, and Delaware will receive $100 million, the department said.

Delaware and Tennessee "have demonstrated the courage, capacity and commitment to turn their ideas into practices that can improve outcomes for students," Secretary Arne Duncan said in a news release.


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 in June. The states that were not picked this time can reapply for grants then.

Officials said Georgia and Florida were third and fourth in the rankings for the grants, which means they may 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, as part of an effort to better their chances, lawmakers passed a new law during a special session in January that requires half of teacher evaluations to be based on student achievement data, a key reform pushed by the Obama administration

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, 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.

Delaware had all of its school districts and teachers approve its "Race to the Top" application, a document that highlighted the state's new law allowing teachers to be removed from the classroom if they are rated "ineffective" for two to three years. The state also offers financial incentives to top-notch educators willing to work in failing schools and in high-demand subjects.

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"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."

Federal education officials were expected to hold a press conference later Monday to talk about the winners.

The grant program is part of President Barack Obama's economic stimulus law, which provided $100 billion for schools.

The Education Department asked states to concentrate their proposals on four areas: 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.


Forty states and Washington, D.C., applied for the grants, scrambling to widen charter school laws and enact performance pay for teachers to prove that they deserved part of the money.

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.

Applications were read and scored by panels of five peer reviewers. The 16 with the highest average score visited Washington this month to present their proposals.

[Associated Press; By DORIE TURNER]

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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