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Race To The Top, Round 3: Seven States Win $200 Million In Funds

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RACE TO THE TOP ROUND 3
Vice President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan join Delaware Gov. Jack Markell (center) in celebrating the state's earlier Race to the Top windfall. | AP

Seven more states will receive $200 million in federal funds in the latest round of the Race to the Top competition, President Barack Obama's controversial signature educational reform program, administration officials announced Friday.

Arizona, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey and Pennsylvania will bring the total of winning states up to 22, forming a critical mass of states that have committed to implementing Obama's education agenda. But appropriations have decreased since funds were awarded in earlier rounds, so these states will rake in significantly less. Illinois, for example, is receiving $43 million, just 10 percent of what it might have won in earlier rounds.

Race to the Top originated as $4.35 billion in stimulus money in 2009. Recession-rocked states competed for the funding by signing onto reforms such as teacher evaluations that took student test scores into account and removal of restrictions on the number of charter schools allowed. While the administration credits the competition with releasing a wave of new education policies -- as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan often puts it, "unleashing creativity" -- it has also led to concerns that states desperate for the cash have focused on quantity instead of quality.

Despite those diminishing appropriations, Race to the Top has a future next year. The 2012 omnibus funding bill that Congress just passed authorizes the competition to continue with $500 million more in funding and allows school districts, not just states, to compete.

The third round of Race to the Top was open only to finalists of earlier rounds who had crafted sweeping reform plans but lost -- some say, unfairly -- for various reasons. Of those nine finalists, seven applied. South Carolina opted out, and California submitted what the administration called an "incomplete" application.

Duncan said the latest winners have shown commitment to the reform plans they submitted earlier, despite not reaping the dollars to fund them. "Illinois, like Colorado ... they continue to move with tremendous enthusiasm and urgency without our resources," he told reporters Thursday.

New Jersey's earlier Race to the Top loss over an administrative error famously resulted in the state missing out on a potential $400 million and the firing of then-education commissioner Bret Schundler. This time around, New Jersey won $38 million to fund teachers' professional development, teacher and principal evaluations, and a transition to new academic standards.

"Over the past month, we have heard a groundswell of support from districts across the state for this type of model curriculum to ensure that the Common Core State Standards move from a concept in Trenton to a tool for every classroom in the state," said Chris Cerf, New Jersey's acting education commissioner, in a statement.

California lost by not signing onto earlier promises. "We were simply looking for a recommitment, not a new commitment, and unfortunately that didn't happen," Duncan said.

This round required states to commit to their original reform plans as well as to new plans to advance science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education. To fulfill this requirement, Illinois plans to integrate STEM into the curriculum, and Kentucky seeks to scale up the AdvanceKentucky project that targets underrepresented students in STEM classes.

So far, though, all states that have received Race to the Top funding have delayed the deadline for implementation. These delays have been so egregious in Hawaii that on Wednesday, the Education Department sent the state a letter threatening its $75 million in funding and warning of a major in-state review next year.

New York has similarly struggled to deliver on its Race to the Top promises, failing to strike an agreement with the teachers union on evaluations and delaying the creation of a student data system.

Although Duncan said Thursday that no other states are in as risky a position as Hawaii, the Education Department plans to release report cards on Race to the Top implementation over the next three to four weeks.

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