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Cash-Starved Arizona Vaults From 40th Place to Finalist in $4 Billion Federal Competition

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(Photograph by Wing-Chi Poon)

Arizona shocked the education world on Tuesday -- but this time not by passing another draconian law on immigration or sex education. Instead, Arizona was a surprise finalist in the second round of the $4 billion Race to the Top competition, after having finished 40th out of 41 competitors in the first round. And it did so by touting its record of education reform and thoroughly revising its first-round application.

Ann-Eve Pedersen of the Arizona Education Network says she can think of just one reason why the economically depressed state made the cut this time.

"Maybe the federal government has taken pity on the state of education funding here," said Pedersen, president of the nonprofit, nonpartisan group that advocates for improved education funding. Arizona has faced four consecutive years of budget shortfalls and ranks 49th in per-pupil spending, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Arizona received the stunning news that it had beat out 17 states and could be eligible for between $150-250 million, after U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced 18 other second-round finalists in the federal competition on Tuesday.

Arizona's Republican Governor Jan Brewer called the state's turnaround "a very significant and important milestone in Arizona's comeback... after scoring so low in the first round, we did not give up -- instead we pushed even harder for the education reforms we know are critical regardless of federal funding."

The state's efforts to secure federal help underscore its dire need for cash and a willingness to do whatever it takes to get it at a time when full-day kindergarten has been cut, hundreds of teachers have been laid off and early childhood education programs are in danger. "Our schools are in desperate need of additional funding, and even though it comes with a lot of strings attached, we will take any funds we can get," Pedersen said.

The story of Arizona's surprising status as a reform-oriented finalist can be found in the application put together by WestEd, the nonprofit agency that works at local, state and federal levels to develop research-based programs and strategies. Paul Koehler, director of the Policy Center at the WestEd base in Phoenix, recalls getting a call from Gov. Brewer after the state's first-round application fell short in March. The state had amassed just 240 points out of a possible 500, and she wanted help.

"I think there was some collective embarrassment at ending up in 40th [ahead of only] South Dakota," Koehler said in an interview with The Hechinger Report on Tuesday. "So we tried to take a good look at what the application required and really build a story around reform in this state, around the quality of educators and how they manage with so little money. Everyone was motivated to help."

By May, though, state lawmakers had passed a set of education reforms, and Koehler said the state teachers' union got on board to support the second-round application. They were not involved in the first round. That included the Arizona Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, which has expressed reservations and skepticism about the Race to the Top competition.

"They eventually saw the reason to get involved if the state has a chance to win, and they really stepped it up and talked to their members," Koehler said.

Arizona's application portrays the state as one that has embraced reform in some areas, such as an open enrollment policy and its leadership in establishing charter schools. (Its charter school law was one of the first in the nation.) It lays out a reform agenda for the rapidly growing state, which ranks second in the U.S. for the percentage increase in public school enrollment.

Arizona, its application points out, has unique challenges: 98 percent of the state is classified as rural, and it has the largest Native American population of any state. It also has the toughest law on illegal immigration, which many believe is fueling an exodus of Hispanics from its communities - and its schools.

The state's schools, meanwhile, have been in the news for a very different reason recently. A new bill in the state senate requires parental consent before children can receive any sexual education in school, meaning schools must notify parents beforehand when any materials regarding "sexuality" will be presented in class.

Koehler said he prefers to look ahead, and hopes the state will ultimately succeed when finalists are announced in September.

"Because of the conventional wisdom, I didn't think we had a chance," Koehler said. "I think the second-round application motivated a lot of the education stakeholders to come together."