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Other states join Indiana in spurning grant program

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About two dozen states are going back to Washington for another shot at billions in education grants under the "Race to the Top" program, but at least nine others with more than 7 million children are opting out of trying a second time.

For them, a chance at hundreds of millions of dollars wasn't enough to overcome the opposition of teachers unions, the wariness of state leaders to pass laws to suit the program and fears of giving up too much local control.

Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Oregon, South Dakota, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming will all be on the sidelines for the second round, along with a handful of other states that didn't apply the first time. So far only two states, Delaware and Tennessee, have been approved for the money.

Michael Petrilli, an education analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based think tank, noted that none of the nine states opting out were among the 16 finalists in the first round.

"If you didn't get into that Sweet 16 the first time around and you couldn't get a serious reform bill passed, you didn't have a very good shot," he said.

This could be the last time "Race to the Top" money is given out. The U.S. Education Department will probably dole out the remaining nearly $4 billion in the second round and, Petrilli said, it's unlikely Congress will allocate more.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the department was "thrilled with the level of participation we've seen" and the reforms enacted by the states that did apply "makes them all winners when it comes to furthering the state of education for our kids."

Indiana bowed out of the competition in late April after a highly public feud between public schools chief Tony Bennett and the state's teachers' unions.

Indiana applied in the first round of the "Race" competition but did not make the finals, in large part because Bennett's plan won support from only 62 percent of the local teachers unions. When Bennett, the superintendent of public instruction, demanded their support for key principles of Indiana's second-round application, a state teachers union official responded that Bennett needed to start over on his plan. A war of words escalated from there.

In Minnesota, fights between the Republican governor and the teachers unions derailed applications.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and his education commissioner, Alice Seagren, blamed the state's teachers union for thwarting changes in the Legislature that would have made a grant application more competitive. Seagren said the state had been "bought and sold" by the union's influence.

Union president Tom Dooher was unapologetic. "The governor and his staff need to come to grips with the fact that the gimmicks they are selling are not what is needed to solve the problems of the modern-day classroom," Dooher said in response.

In Kansas and Wyoming, state officials worried about giving up too much local control. Virginia officials decided their academic standards were better than the ones contemplated in the grant.

State officials and legislators in West Virginia, Idaho, Oregon and South Dakota either couldn't pass an education reform package to conform with requirements in time or decided not to even try to beat the Tuesday deadline.

"Race to the Top" aims to boost student achievement by rewarding states for adopting a slate of education reforms, including adopting common academic standards across state lines, tying teacher pay and tenure to student achievement, fixing failing schools and creating data systems to track student performance.

Forty states and Washington, D.C., applied for the grants in the first round and at least one state, Washington, was ready to apply for the first time in the second round.

Delaware and Tennessee were the only states to win grants in the first round, splitting $600 million. After details of the scoring for the grant were revealed in March, statehouses across the country began passing laws to improve their chances in the second round.

But for the most part that didn't happen in the nine states who are skipping a second chance. Their applications didn't do well in the first round, earning an average score of 306 out of 500 — well off the winning scores of Delaware (454.6) and Tennessee (444.2).

Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at Macalester College in St. Paul and a nationally recognized expert on charter schools, said the teachers unions didn't realize their power over the process until first-round scoring was revealed in March.

He said that before the first round, Education Secretary Duncan stressed the importance of cutting-edge approaches to education reform. But when the scores came back, it was clear states needed support from their teacher unions "that have a history of not supporting those things," Nathan said.

That was the case in Minnesota. Republican Gov. Pawlenty pushed the Democrat-controlled Legislature to pass a series of education reforms over the objections of the state teachers union. In turn, the union touted its own proposals for change and criticized Pawlenty for giving up on a potential $175 million in "Race to the Top" money.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which has more than 1.4 million members nationwide, said teachers' leverage helped persuade leaders in other states, most notably Florida, to collaborate with them to craft better applications.

But there was little collaboration in Minnesota and Indiana. "It is a shame," she said. "They left money on the table."

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