Politics & Government

South Carolina, others, finalists for 'Race to the Top'

WASHINGTON — U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan hailed South Carolina and 14 other states Thursday in naming them as finalists competing for shares of $4.35 billion in new federal funding for innovative education initiatives.

The 15 states, with North Carolina also among them, and the District of Columbia were chosen from among 41 states that applied for the "Race to the Top" grants to be funded from the $787 billion economic-stimulus bill that President Barack Obama signed into law in February 2009.

"Some people in South Carolina might be surprised that we're a finalist," said S.C. Superintendent Jim Rex. "But nationally our state is viewed as being on the cutting edge of making the changes that will make schools stronger."

South Carolina requested $300 million in a 1,251-page application in January. Gov. Mark Sanford, who tried in vain last year to redirect $700 million in stimulus money for paying down the state’s debt, met with Duncan in Washington last month to push its award bid.

“We’re certainly encouraged by the news today, especially after the governor spent dividend-paying time with Secretary Duncan discussing these grants face to face in Washington last month,” Ben Fox, Sanford’s spokesman, said.

Duncan said the finalists all scored at least 400 points in a 500-point grading system and had their applications assessed by five-member panels of education experts.

“We are putting unprecedented resources on the table to award states that are ready to dramatically reshape America’s education system,” Duncan told reporters. “We’ve set a very high bar. We want them to be catalysts for education reforms across the country.”

The winners will be chosen next month after personal interviews with senior representatives from the 15 states and the District of Columbia. A second round of applications will accepted in June.

North Carolina Gov. Beverly Purdue will head the state’s delegation to Washington for the interviews the week of March 12.

Rex and S.C. Deputy Superintendent Betsy Carpentier, who oversaw South Carolina’s application, will go to Washington for the interviews. Aides to Rex and Sanford said they didn’t know whether the governor will accompany them.

South Carolina’s public schools budgets have been cut more than $700 million in the last 18 months, while general fund dollars were reduced from $2.4 billion in the 2008 fiscal year to $1.9 billion in the current fiscal year.

The budget gap would be even wider were it not for a $382 million infusion of federal stimulus money this year.

The “Race to the Top” applications were controversial in some states because one of the conditions for receiving the grant money is linking student standardized test scores to teacher evaluations. Many local teachers unions opposed that requirement.

“We expect the winners to lead the way and blaze the path for education reform for years and even decades to come,” Duncan said.

Duncan said fewer than 10 winners will be chosen to share $2 billion in the first round of awards. He warned that states could lose the grants if they’re improperly used to fill budget deficits or offset other funding cuts.

“If we see (the winning states) acting in bad faith, we’ll simply shift funding to other states that are doing it the right way,” Duncan said.

In the application assessments, half of the points were awarded for existing programs and half were based on the states’ future reform plans.

In its application, South Carolina proposed launching new dropout-prevention programs, outfitting more Montessori classrooms and giving incentives to teachers who agree to work in the most challenged schools.

Among the state’s other proposals were building housing for teachers who agree to live and work in rural areas and creating high-tech labs for students to learn about advanced manufacturing and green engineering.

Alan Richard, an analyst with the Southern Regional Educational Board, said eight of the Atlanta think tank’s 16 state members were chosen as “Race to the Top” finalists.

“South Carolina and many of its neighboring states have been national leaders in setting higher academic standards and in measuring students’ progress in meeting those standards,” Richard said.

The other states named as “Race to the Top” finalists are: Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Delaware, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island and Tennessee.

(McClatchy Newspapers reporters Barbara Barrett and Gina Smith contributed to this account)