- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 24, 2010

ATLANTA (AP) — Nine states and the District of Columbia will get money to reform schools in the second round of the $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” grant competition, the U.S. Education Department said Tuesday.

Maryland, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia will receive the grants, department spokesman Justin Hamilton said. 

In Washington, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty announced that the city will receive a $75 million grant, which, he said, matched the amount the nation’s capital had sought and was “fantastic news” for the city and its students.

Mr. Fenty has made school reform a central focus of his administration, but his choice of schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee to run the city’s public schools has been controversial. She has angered teachers and others with her management style and by firing hundreds of school employees, but Miss Rhee and Mr. Fenty say test scores have improved under their watch.

Maryland officials announced that the state will receive $250 million, the full amount requested. The state plans to use the money to bring its curriculum in line with international benchmarks and to expand a program that’s shown progress in turning around underperforming schools.

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said it was an honor for the state to be selected as one of the 10 winners.

Maryland did not apply for the first round of “Race to the Top” funds, in part because it did not evaluate teachers’ performance based on their students’ academic achievement. That was changed in a bill approved this year.

The historic “Race to the Top” program, part of President Obama’s economic stimulus plan, rewards states for taking up ambitious changes to improve struggling schools, close the achievement gap and boost graduation rates.

The competition instigated a wave of reforms across the country as states passed new teacher accountability policies and lifted caps on charter schools to boost their chances of winning.

“While this has seemed more like a marathon at times, now the real race begins,” Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue said in a written statement. “This is truly a unique opportunity to implement a Georgia-created plan that will accelerate our work in improving student achievement.”

Georgia came in third in the first round of the competition in March, losing out to Tennessee and Delaware, which are sharing $600 million. Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia applied for the second round of the competition, and the Education Department named 19 finalists in July.

The applicants named winners Tuesday will share a remaining $3.4 billion. Another $350 million is coming in a separate competition for states creating new academic assessments.

One notable absence on the list of winners was Colorado, which passed a controversial law this year that ties teacher pay to student performance and allows the state to strip tenure from low-performing instructors.

Colorado officials were expected to comment later Tuesday.

More than a dozen states vying for the money changed laws to foster the growth of charter schools, and at least 17 reformed teacher evaluation systems to include student achievement. Dozens also adopted Common Core State Standards, the uniform math and reading benchmarks developed by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association.

“The change unleashed by conditioning federal funding on bold and forward-looking state education policies is indisputable,” the Democrats for Education Reform said in a statement. “Under the president’s leadership, local civil rights, child advocacy, business and education reform groups, in collaboration with those state and local teacher unions ready for change, sprung into action to achieve things that they had been waiting and wanting to do for years.”

In a speech announcing the finalists last month, Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the change a “quiet revolution.”

Between both rounds of the competition, a total of 46 states and the District of Columbia applied.

While the program has been praised for instigating swift reforms, the competition for many states was an uphill battle, with teacher unions hesitant to sign on to reforms directly tying teacher evaluations to student performance on standardized tests, and education leaders concerned that winning meant giving up too much local control.

Florida was among the states that got resistance from teachers unions in the first round of the competition but won their support after taking a more collaborative approach in round two.

“I think it shows that when the governor brought all the stakeholders together, we came up with an application that was strong and doable,” said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union. “The Department of Education saw the progress that we made, and I just hope that collaboration and cooperation continues at the local level.”

Other states, such as Indiana, dropped out of the competition because of the lack of union support for the state’s application.

A number of states that did not win the competition said they still planned to proceed with the reforms they had proposed, though they acknowledged change would take place at a slower pace without the financial boost of “Race to the Top.”

Associated Press writers Christine Armario in Miami and Michael Gormley in Albany, N.Y., contributed to this report.