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How Race to the Top is recasting education reform in America

States are submitting their applications for Round 2 of the Obama administration's $4.3 billion Race to the Top program. States are undertaking major education reform to qualify.

By Staff writer / June 1, 2010

President Obama visited with sixth grade students at the Graham Road Elementary School in Falls Church, Va., before delivering a speech on education reform and Race to the Top in this Jan. 19 file photo.

Kristoffer Tripplaar/Newscom/File

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New York is more than doubling its number on charter schools and will tie teacher evaluations to student performance.

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Colorado passed a major overhaul of teacher tenure and evaluation rules, despite fierce union opposition.

And Louisiana teachers will be subject to more rigorous evaluation, after a law the legislature pushed through last week.

As states submit their applications Tuesday for Round 2 of the Obama administration's Race to the Top education grants, several states have taken major actions to try to be more competitive. At the same time, a handful have dropped out, either over disagreement about the framework of the competition or after a failure to get the reforms needed to have a shot at a piece of the $4.3 billion pot of federal money.

The nationwide churn on education reform shows how much mileage the administration has gotten out of a relatively small pot of money – permanently changing the reform agenda in the US as a result, experts say. In addition, Race to the Top seems to be giving many states the political cover they need to push through reforms unpopular with unions.

“There are some really important things going on,” says Charles Barone, director of federal policy for Democrats for Education Reform. “Which is not to say that every state succeeded…. But in every state we at least saw some ice breaking” in the conversation around education.

Round 2: Here we go again

Race to the Top was already the impetus for a rash of major education reforms late last year in advance of the January application deadline. After just two winnersDelaware and Tennessee – were announced in March, many states voiced dissatisfaction with the process. Some observers said the choice demonstrated that states needed substantial union buy-in to be considered.

Delaware and Tennessee were widely seen as having weaker applications than several other states – like Florida and Louisiana – but had better buy-in from unions and districts.

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