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Georgia named finalist for Race to the Top grant
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Georgia is yet again in the final race for a share of $3.4 billion for education, and local officials are still supporting the process.

The state was one of 19 finalists announced this afternoon for the second round of the federal "Race to the Top" grant competition for school reform.

U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan said 10 to 15 states will be selected in late August or early September, and Georgia could claim about $400 million for its initiatives.

"I am pleased to see Georgia advance to Phase Two of the competition," Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said. "The potential of leveraging (Race to the Top) resources to accelerate the type of positive changes needed in our nation’s public schools is exciting. Speaking as a Georgia father, I am hoping our state is selected to help lead the way."

Schofield is a member of the state’s Race to the Top committee, and Hall County and Gainesville are two of 26 school districts in the state that support the application.

During the first round of competition, Georgia was the third-highest scorer when finalists were selected in March. Delaware received $100 million for its ideas, and Tennessee took $500 million while Georgia fell 11 points behind its neighbor to the north.

With the top running in the first competition, Georgia officials are hopeful they’ll land the second round.

"While like the Oscars it is an honor to be nominated, we look forward to celebrating a win in this race," Gov. Sonny Perdue said. "This grant is an opportunity to further align funding and state education policies with our desired outcome of improved student achievement."

Georgia’s application for the second round, submitted June 1, was not much different from the first round of ideas, but state officials decided to put more details into the areas that round one federal reviewers found vague.

Race to the Top applications are judged on four key areas: standards and assessment, data systems that support instruction, "great" teachers and leaders and turning around the lowest-achieving schools.

Georgia’s application, more than 200 pages, points to legislation passed this year that gives the state the power to intervene in troubled school districts. Gov. Sonny Perdue also supported the idea of using student achievement as a measure of a teacher’s job evaluation.

"While some have called this federal intrusion into state education policy, the goals of Race to the Top are well aligned to the direction Georgia is moving," Perdue said. "As the third place finisher in Phase One, I believe Georgia is in an incredibly strong position to win this phase of the competition. We look forward to the interview process where I am confident the review team will find that Georgia has a clear and compelling plan for improving student achievement."

Some education advocacy groups are supporting the plan and are interested in how policies will be implemented.

"This is good news for Georgia," said Steve Dolinger, president of Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education. "While the state still must complete a successful interview with the federal grant reviewers, this announcement is proof that our public education system is on the right track and our Race to the Top plan will allow us to focus on additional reforms that will further improve student achievement. I believe we are well positioned now to ultimately be awarded the funding later this year."

Teachers’ groups have criticized Georgia’s application, saying state lawmakers didn’t lay the groundwork to carry out ideas.

"The money would be welcome, but we don’t believe the state is ready yet in terms of the real processes or student information system to implement a merit pay plan just yet, and the application calls for that," said Tim Callahan, director of public relations for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. "The other issue that’s troubling is we don’t know who our next governor or superintendent will be."

John Barge, Republican nominee for state schools superintendent, is opposed to the grant program, criticizing additional ties to the federal government. On the other hand, Democratic nominee Joe Martin supports the program.

"The candidates all have varying degrees of support or opposition, and this causes an uncertain leadership position," Callahan said. "It would have been great if the governor and his policy advisers would have invited some of our 80,000 members across the state to get in on the drawing board and have commentary, and the feeling we got is they didn’t want a lot of input."

The governor’s office conducted a survey of 20,000 educators, but Callahan said the questions were vague.

"It was misleading in the sense that the people who filled it out had no idea what it would be used for," Callahan said. "So the input process was not a thorough one, and hard work needed to be done before it was submitted. If Georgia wins, how is this going to work?"

Other states named as finalists for the grant are Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and South Carolina; the District of Columbia also was named a finalist.