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The U.S. Department of Education this week named only two small states—Delaware and Tennessee—as first-round winners of the unprecedented competition known as Race to the Top for shares of $4 billion to support a highly detailed education reform agenda established by the Obama administration.

The two states won out over 14 other finalists selected from the 40 states and the District of Columbia that applied for the money. Tennessee will receive $500 million and Delaware about $100 million.

That leaves $3.4 billion to be awarded in a second round of grants in August.

The competition departs from the way the federal government distributes most of its education aid: complicated formulas tied to student enrollment that send money to every state. State applications that ran to hundreds of pages were awarded with up to 500 points based on how closely they adhered to the administration’s views of the best practices and policies for improving education. The process also gave states points for garnering broad support for their plans from local school districts, school boards, and union leaders.

The decision to award first-phase funding to only two states surprised some education reform advocates. “We were all worried about [Education Secretary Arne] Duncan picking too many states, and they might have picked too few,” said Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

Both Tennessee and Delaware have long been considered leaders—but in different ways. Between 1998 and 2007, Delaware led the nation in narrowing the minority student achievement gap in fourth-grade math and eighth-grade reading scores. Tennessee pioneered a “value-added” testing system for measuring the progress of individual students and linking it to their teachers and schools. The selection highlights the fact that about half the points in the competition were awarded for the states’ previous reform efforts.

Under its new plan, Tennessee will use the value-added testing data in teacher evaluations and to identify low-performing schools that need state help. Schools that do not improve can eventually be taken over by the state. Tennessee also passed a law making it easier to increase the number of charter schools, which are public schools that are privately operated.

Delaware now has a statewide evaluation system for teachers and principals. Teachers whose students’ test scores do not rise fast enough will be labeled ineffective. Those who are judged to be ineffective two to three years in a row lose their tenure status. The state also created an aggressive “school turnaround” strategy, which could require teachers unions to renegotiate parts of their contracts to accommodate reforms. It also will offer bonuses of up to $10,000 to teachers and principals willing to work in high-need schools.

Duncan said this was the first time that the federal Education Department had money to reward success. A number of states, including California, Illinois, and Louisiana, changed laws to improve their chances of winning.

Race to the Top
Randi Weingarten

Many of the policies the administration supports are not universally embraced by educators. The two national teachers unions, which usually support education policies in a Democratic administration, object to the federal government requiring states or districts to use student performance in evaluating and compensating teachers and are dubious about charter schools. “Without teacher buy-in, reforms have little chance of taking root for long-term success,” a statement from American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten noted.

Delaware’s application was supported by all of the state’s school districts and charter schools. It also was backed by the state teachers union, a coalition of business leaders, philanthropists, leaders of both political parties, and Gov. Jack Markell, who helped present the plan in person to the review teams that chose the winners. A Delaware business leader, a school district superintendent, and the president of the teachers union, the Delaware State Education Association, joined him in the interview.

Markell said that he believed that the widespread community support for the state’s plan helped it win. “In Delaware, we don’t have to choose between consensus and being bold,” he says. “You get the best of both worlds.”

“We’ve worked very collaboratively with our governor here,” said Diane Donohue, the president of the Delaware teachers union. “Much of the reform efforts are hinged on defining student growth. It’s crucial that the union be part of that conversation.”

Tennessee’s plan also had broad political, civic, and labor support. All of the state’s school districts and nearly all of the district union leaders signed on. A group founded by former Sen. Bill Frist, a Republican, worked closely with Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, in developing Tennessee’s plan. Frist praised Bredesen’s leadership on the issue and said that “for a state that’s typically on the bottom rung of the national education rankings, it’s remarkable that we now are at the leading edge of the national reform movement.”

Race to the Top
Dennis Van Roekel (Credit: © 2010 Photo by Patrick G. Ryan/NEA. All Rights Reserved. Courtesy of the National Education Association.)

By contrast, Florida and Louisiana, which submitted applications that closely matched the Education Department’s specifications, did not win local support. Florida’s proposal called for ending teacher tenure, and the Florida Education Association actively encouraged school districts not to support the state’s application. Most districts supported the plan anyway, but the union leaders did not. In Louisiana, many districts declined to participate.

National Education Association President Dennis van Roekel said that states thinking of applying for the second round of funding should learn from the grants awarded today. “It says that if you didn’t involve the teachers the first time around, it’s important to do it the second time around.”

Duncan was asked at a news conference how the position of the teachers unions contributed to the decision to choose Delaware and Tennessee. Duncan said that “buy-in was a piece of the scoring but not the whole thing.”

“What was very impressive about Delaware and Tennessee is that they are touching 100 percent of the kids in their states” and “doing it in a very convincing way,” Duncan said.

Some observers worried that states that submit strong, reform-minded applications that are not supported by union leaders will not have a chance in the second round. But an alternate analysis is that the first-round loss will put pressure on local and union leaders to participate, because they might be seen as standing in the way of states receiving a badly needed cash infusion.

Some education advocates and policy analysts called the decision to give awards to only two states an impressive stroke of political courage. “It’s pretty darn brave,” says Amy Wilkins, principal partner of the Education Trust, which advocates policies to improve teaching for low-income students. Administration officials are “sending a very clear signal about what is important to them.”

This story originally appeared on the U.S. News & World Report site March 30.

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