Maryland wins Race to the Top funds

Maryland was one of nine states and the District of Columbia declared a winner Tuesday in the $4.3 billion education competition designed to reshape teaching in schools across the country.

The $250 million the state will receive by Sept. 30 will help to fund what state leaders call a new wave of education reforms.

In the past year, state education officials and lawmakers have changed the rules governing teacher tenure and evaluations, adopted a new set of standards for what will be taught in the classroom, agreed to overhaul failing schools and pledged to develop a new system for collecting student data — all in hopes of winning the federal money.

"Maryland had a great application," said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, noting that the state made significant changes to its laws and regulations last winter after forgoing an application during a first round of funding.

"That time they took got them to a very good place," Duncan said. Maryland, he said, "has been one of those states that have helped to shape the conversation around education for some time."

Both the governor and the state superintendent of schools, Nancy Grasmick, had staked much on the Race to the Top, a U.S. Department of Education program that sparked a fierce competition among states by dangling the prospect of hundreds of millions in additional money. In the round of winners announced Tuesday, $3.4 billion was distributed; only Tennessee and Delaware were awarded money in an earlier round.

Grasmick, who said she had not slept for two nights in anticipation of the announcement, was visibly relieved when the news came during a state school board meeting. "I am very excited," she said during a standing ovation and hugs. "Thanks to everyone in this room."

Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat in a tight re-election race, visited the state school board later in the day to mark the victory. "We think of this as an opportunity, not so much to race to the top," he said, adding that the state has been judged to have the best schools on several measures. "But this is an opportunity to give our students in Maryland an education that is world-class."

O'Malley called it "a tough competition and not without its risks."

If the state had not won, Grasmick's reputation as leading the state to the forefront of education could have been tarnished, and O'Malley could have had a tougher time campaigning on his education record.

Besides Maryland and the District of Columbia, winning states included Massachusetts, New York, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island.

Observers began picking apart the results immediately, with critics noting that winning states were concentrated on the East Coast and have large urban areas. The Fordham Foundation and the Center for Education Reform both said Louisiana and Colorado — which have recently enacted reforms — should have won, while Maryland and Hawaii should have been excluded.

Most of the federal money will be passed to local school districts for new programs. The remainder will go to statewide projects, including training teachers in a new national curriculum and building a more sophisticated data-collection system to track teachers and students.

Baltimore City will get at least $46 million; Baltimore County, $15 million; Prince George's County $20 million; Anne Arundel, $6 million; and Howard, $700,000. Montgomery and Frederick counties, which refused to sign the application, will not receive any money.

Baltimore schools chief Andrés Alonso said the award was "tremendous in terms of our ability to do some really great things. It has been quite a journey, so if I am happy today, I can imagine how the governor and Nancy [Grasmick] feel," he said. "They took risks and this is an election year."

The contest became as much about the prestige of a state and its ability to launch a complex initiative as it did about the money.

Unlike No Child Left Behind, which was a top-down federal law for improving schools, Race to the Top was a carrot held out to states that agreed to go along with the Obama administration agenda for how to improve schools.

No state had to take part, but 46 did. And the competition has been credited with accomplishing in a short time what most observers thought would take years. For instance, the common standards, developed by the National Governors Association and the state superintendents, were adopted in a short few months by a majority of states, although such a move was considered unlikely last year.

"We have unleashed this unbelievable creativity," said Duncan.

States like Maryland adopted laws that raised the ire of teachers unions and school districts as they pushed through reforms. As a kind of educational World Series, bloggers and educational advocates assessed each state's chances of success in detail. Education junkies guessed the number of points each state would get.

Maryland scored highly in a section on improving teacher quality but didn't fare so well on charter schools or its inability to get the support of teachers unions and Montgomery County. Overall, Maryland received 450 points, sixth on the list of 10 second-round winners, and tied with the District of Columbia. Massachusetts, long seen as a state with excellent schools, had the highest score, with 471 points; the lowest, Ohio, had 440 points.

Grasmick and her team met at 7:30 each morning for months to write the 2,000 pages that were finally turned in late this spring, and along with the governor participated in a 90-minute grilling in Washington earlier this year that was part of the application process.

Word of the winners was kept secret, and the suspense built leading up to the announcement.

In a call to reporters, Duncan said, the process had been "fair and impartial" and that he had not intervened in any way with the outside reviewers scoring the applications.

Without the money, Grasmick said the state would still have dedicated itself to the reform measures, but they would have happened far more slowly. She said failure to win would have been a huge blow and would have made her question why the state had not been counted on to carry out some serious and complicated initiatives. Alonso said getting the money has validated the work the state has already done to implement some new ideas.

The most controversial of the initiatives and one that a statewide committee begins working on Thursday will be the development of a teacher evaluation system that will make student achievement 50 percent of a teacher's performance.

What it is: Race to the Top is a $4.3 billion competition among states for federal education dollars.

Who gets it: Getting money in the second round of funding announced Tuesday are Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, New York, Rhode Island, Ohio, Hawaii, District of Columbia, Georgia, Florida.

Where the money goes: 22 of Maryland's 24 school districts will receive funding, with Baltimore and Prince George's County getting the most.

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