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Still in the ‘Race’

Like on a game show, the state is moving to a runoff round for a cut of $4.35 billion in federal education dollars. But Bredesen says he’s not so sure the Volunteer State will win in this first phase of grants even though education experts say Tennessee is ahead of the pack.

Tennessee made the grade Thursday and was named a finalist in the “Race to the Top” grant competition, positioning itself to possibly take home millions of federal education dollars.

Seen as a front runner in some education circles for the U.S. Department of Education grants, Tennessee is one of 15 states, plus the District of Columbia, to make the first cut in Phase 1.

“I’m very pleased we’ve been named a finalist for the first round of funding, and believe that’s due to our shared commitment to making significant and meaningful improvements to K-12 education,” said Gov. Phil Bredesen.

Tennessee’s application asked for $501.8 million of the $4.35 billion pool of federal grant money.

In January, the governor called lawmakers back to the capitol to focus entirely on cleaning up the state’s education laws in order to pass specific reforms he felt would liven up its “Race to the Top” application.

The Legislature spent a full week passing new education laws that change the way teachers are evaluated and make use of mountains of student assessment data.

“I have no doubt this was a significant part of our success,” Bredesen said.

Some of those reforms were unpopular with the Tennessee Education Association, particularly changes that require half of a teacher’s evaluation to depend on student test scores.

The new law will require 35 percent of a teacher’s review to rely solely on how students performed on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System exams that measure learning from year to year. Details on the remaining 15 percent could depend on other types of test scores, but those details have yet to be determined by a team of legislators, policy directors, educators and other stakeholders assembled this month. The changes are scheduled to kick in for the 2011-2012 school year.

Members of that commission were supposed to be appointed by chamber leaders and the governor by mid-February. Speakers of the House and Senate made their appointments around that time but the deadline passed without Bredesen announcing his selections, which he made public earlier this week.

The competition isn’t over. Each remaining state can defend their application to officials in Washington later this month in hopes of winning a pile of federal grant money meant to reward them for improving education.

After meeting with state officials, a federal panel will rank each state based on the strength of its application and judge whether officials there have understanding, knowlege, strength, capability and will to follow through on the reforms detailed in their application.

“We are setting a high bar and we anticipate very few winners in phase 1,” said Arne Duncan, U.S. Education Secretary. “But this isn’t just about the money. It’s about collaboration among all stakeholders, building a shared agenda, and challenging ourselves to improve the way our students learn.” Duncan said.

The department will announce winners in April. Eliminated states can reapply for the one-time education grants again in June in Phase 2.

Prior to the announcement, Gov. Phil Bredesen said he wouldn’t be surprised if Tennessee ends up getting rejected and having to reapply.

“I think it’s entirely possible we miss something this first pass and get something in June on the second pass. I don’t know,” he told reporters Wednesday.

Education experts say Tennessee is one of the front runners for the education grants, along with Florida and Louisiana.

However, because they’re all Southern states, Bredesen said the federal government might want to spread the first wave of grant money out to states from different regions.

Other states Tennessee will now compete against are Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and the District of Columbia.

The rest of the states are not completely out of the running. They can reapply for the education grant money in June.

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