Race to the Top: The States React

 

Cheers, jeers and finger-pointing followed the federal government's announcement Thursday (March 4) of the 15 states named as finalists in a $4.35 billion grant competition to revamp the nation's schools. But what can't be debated is that the Race to the Top program has attracted most states' interest.

"The fact that you had thousands of education advocates and officials all over the country at 11:30 a.m. Eastern time this morning (March 4) looking on the Internet to see which states were finalists shows they've created a sense of enthusiasm for reform with this," Joe Williams, head of Democrats for Education Reform, told The Washington Post . "It's hard to remember a time when states were comparing themselves to each other."

The District of Columbia and 15 states made the cut: Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Forty states applied.

The finalists each are eligible for a slice of the $4.35 billion, which was authorized as part of the federal stimulus package and will go to states that enact reforms that the Obama administration supports, including expanding charter schools, holding teachers more accountable and making greater use of data to chart progress. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has broad leverage to choose the states that he deems best. The winners will be announced in April, and Duncan said Thursday that fewer than 10 are likely to win, with funding of up to $700 million per state, depending on its size.

Many states have taken aggressive steps to compete for the money, including changing their laws to allow for more charter schools. That has already made Race to the Top one of the biggest education shakeups in years.

"The amount of state-level policy changes in the last few months that this has generated is really unprecedented," Andrew Rotherham, of the Washington-based think tank Education Sector, told National Public Radio . "It was an ambitious set of proposals for reform, and it came at a time when states needed money."

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation helped 14 of the 16 finalists — all but Delaware and South Carolina — with their applications, The Associated Press reported . The foundation handed out grants of up to $250,000 per state to pay for consultants that helped with the labor-intensive application process.

Here are some notable reactions from some of Thursday's winners and losers:

  • Alabama Governor Bob Riley blamed the state teachers' union and the Legislature for hampering the state's chances. He issued a news release blaming the union for "obstructionism" and castigating the Legislature for not approving a bill that would have lifted the state's ban on charter schools. "We're certainly disappointed at the results, but honestly, not surprised," Riley said.
  • California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said the decision to exclude the nation's most populous state validated his concerns that bolder steps were needed to reform the state's education system. "While the reforms we passed did move our state forward, they did not go far enough because other states were more competitive," Schwarzenegger said .
  • New York's emergence as a finalist came as a surprise to many observers because the state in January failed to pass a law expanding charter schools. The chancellor of the state's Board of Regents said she believes lawmakers must pass such a law to have a realistic chance at winning federal money.
  • "Thank goodness we're at the dance," Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue said , squaring the competition with "March Madness," the college basketball tournament that begins later this month. "We're ecstatic."
 
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