S.C. misses out on ‘Race to the Top’ award

WASHINGTON – South Carolina failed Tuesday for the second time in five months to land tens of millions of dollars from a new federal program aimed at accelerating education reforms.

To add insult to injury, South Carolina’'s neighbors to the north and the south, North Carolina and Georgia, were among the nine states and the District of Columbia named as winners by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. They'll get a combined $3.4 billion in the second round of the inaugural Race to the Top program.

"It surprised us and disappointed us that South Carolina was not chosen to receive funding," said state Education Superintendent Jim Rex. "We really did feel like we had a very good chance this time to be chosen."

South Carolina's failed bid Tuesday was for $175 million. Its request for $300 million in the competition’s first round had been turned down in March.

South Carolina finished 14th among 35 applicants in the second round, with a score of 431 points from a maximum 500 by a panel of five education experts. It had ranked sixth among 41 applicants in the first round with a score of 423.

“We keep getting close, but not quite close enough,” Rex said.

Rex noted that the five experts’ individual scores for South Carolina varied significantly, ranging from 402 to 459 points

Duncan said South Carolina and eight other state finalists that didn’t get the grants had outstanding applications, but his agency ran out of funds.

“There were many great applications that we would have liked to have funded in this award,” Duncan said. “We simply did not have the money to do that.”

South Carolina proposed using its grant to toughen teacher evaluations by linking them to student achievement; to upgrade teacher recruitment and retention, especially in rural areas and struggling schools; and to focus more intensive help on low-achieving students in earlier grades.

Deputy Superintendent Betsy Carpentier, who accompanied Rex and three other state and local education officials to the interview in Washington with the expert panel, said South Carolina has already launched the reforms.

“They’re all things we’ve been working on,” Carpentier said. “We’ll just be at a more deliberative pace without that (Race to the Top) funding. Our existing appropriations have been cut 45 percent. We need to make do.”

The new rejection was the second piece of bad news from Washington in a week for the state’s public schools.

South Carolina learned last week that it doesn’t qualify for $143 million in education funds Congress had provided the previous week in an emergency bill aimed at saving the jobs of 2,400 and other public school employees.

Rex said Tuesday the state is relying on House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn to tweak the funding formula in revised legislation. Aides to the Columbia, S.C., Democrat said he’ll wait until Congress returns to Washington next month from its summer break to begin efforts to recoup the money for South Carolina and six other states.

In the ‘Race to the Top’ grants, Delaware and Tennessee received a combined $600 million in the competition’s first round. With the grants announced Tuesday, the federal government has awarded $4.3 billion to 11 states and the District of Columbia.

Duncan said his agency has requested $1.35 billion for additional Race to the Top awards, but the program’s future is uncertain.

The competition was funded from the $787 billion economic-stimulus bill that President Barack Obama signed into law in February 2009.

Future funding will likely have to come from regular education appropriations bills that could face higher hurdles if more Republicans are elected to Congress in November.

Even if Congress approves more Race to the Top grants, South Carolina could find itself on the sidelines.

Mick Zais, the GOP candidate for state education superintendent, has indicated he wouldn’t apply for the grants because they have too many federal strings attached.

State Rep. Nicki Haley, the GOP gubernatorial candidate, hasn’t taken a stand on the program, but she is an outspoken opponent of expanded federal spending.

“I don’t know whether there will be a third round in Race to the Top,” Rex said. “If there is, it will almost certainly be after my tenure as state superintendent. The next superintendent and the next governor will decide whether to apply. I would hope they would take a serious look at it.”

The 10 winners announced Tuesday in rank order were: Massachusetts, New York, Hawaii, Florida, Rhode Island, District of Columbia, Maryland, Georgia, North Carolina and Ohio.

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