First Round of Race to the Top Winners Announced

Education Secretary Arne Duncan just announced the first winners in the Race to the Top competition. He surprised everyone by choosing only two states for the first disbursement of federal funds rewarding educational innovation.

Arne Duncan with Barack Obama

President Barack Obama with Education Secretary Arne Duncan

Pushing Reform

Delaware and Tennessee won big this morning: They're the only two states who will receive money from the first round of federal Race to the Top grants. Announced last summer, the $4.35 billion program is part of Obama's push to get nationwide educational reform to happen at the state level.

Race to the Top is a competitive grant program designed to reward states for implementing specific reforms aimed at closing student achievement gaps. Requirements for the program include closing or transforming failing schools, setting internationally competitive academic standards, finding new ways to recruit educators and implementing data systems that track students through the 'K-20 pipeline' (kindergarten through college graduation) in order to improve K-12 college preparation.

In order to qualify for the funds, states also had to make legislative changes that were often controversial: Abolishing 'firewall' rules that prohibit schools from using student performance data to evaluate teachers. Teachers' unions vociferously opposed these measures, but the administration has made it clear that it feels that data-driven models are the most effective solution for improving teacher performance.

Other critics of the program felt that the federal government was pushing its boundaries by coercing states into changing local laws. Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) refused to apply for the funds because he felt the program was an 'unwarranted federal intrusion.' Nevertheless, many states with struggling education budgets felt that the pot of potential funding was worth the controversy. And others felt it was simply time to get on board with the nationwide push for education reform. Cynthia Brown, an analyst at the Center for American Progress, noted that the scope of policy changes happening all over the country is 'remarkable.'

President Barack Obama announces Race to the Top

Surprises in Phase One

The funds will be given out in multiple phases, and the first recipients were announced today. States were scored on a 500 point system. Out of 16 finalists, a team of judges for the competition gave Delaware the highest ranking, with Tennessee coming in a close second. Education Secretary Arne Duncan declared the two states winners, awarding up to $107 million to Delaware. Tennessee may qualify for as much as $502 million. Specific award amounts, which are based on each state's request in their initial applications, will be finalized after budget discussions between the states and the Department of Education.

Georgia, which came in third, fell just short of a minimum point threshold set by Duncan to qualify for the first round of funds. The remaining finalists were Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and the District of Columbia. Some sources have reported that D.C. came in dead last, but, along with the other finalists, local officials have promised that they still have 'live applications' and will compete in the next phase. The winners are the only states prohibited from competing in upcoming rounds.

The awards will be disbursed over the next four years. Delaware plans to use the money to fund fellowships for highly effective educators and pay for development coaches to work with principles, as well as funding retention bonuses for exceptional teachers at high-need schools. The award will also pay for data coaches to meet regularly with teachers to review student data and help design lesson plans that address student needs. School officials in Tennessee have said that, among other reforms, they plan to use the funds to expand teacher training and improve science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, programs.

Members of the education community were surprised to see Delaware and Tennessee beat out states like Florida and Louisiana that were favored to win. The fact that only two states were declared winners in the first round also came as a surprise, especially to critics who thought that Duncan would spread around as much money as possible to win political favor for President Obama in key states. By withholding the remaining $3.4 billion for future rounds, the administration has shown that it's serious about holding states to tough standards in public education. It also gives the feds continued financial leverage to promote major reforms.

Applications for phase two are due by June 1st, 2010. The administration plans to announce the next round of finalists in August and the second group of winners in September.

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