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State a finalist for 'Race to the Top' grant

ATLANTA -- Georgia has been selected as a finalist by the U.S. Department of Education for the first round of federal Race to the Top grants, Gov. Sonny Perdue announced Thursday.

The state stands to receive up to $462 million over four years to implement its plan if selected, according to a news release.

The Race to the Top grants are designed to reward states that have adopted and will continue implementing innovative reforms to improve student performance. The money is part of President Barack Obama's economic stimulus law, which provided an unprecedented $100 billion for schools. Much of that has gone toward preventing teacher layoffs and addressing other budget concerns. The $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund is targeted specifically for education reform.

"Georgia's designation as a finalist in the Race to the Top competition is further proof that we are moving in the right direction to advance student achievement in our state," Perdue said. "Our work to transform education in Georgia is being recognized nationally, but it is only a beginning. We must continue to align our funding and policies with our desired outcome of improved student achievement."

Gwinnett County Public Schools is one of 23 school districts that signed on to partner with the state in implementing Georgia's Race to the Top plan. The districts, which make up 41 percent of public school students in Georgia, also include Atlanta, Ben Hill, Bibb, Burke, Carrollton, Chatham, Cherokee, Clayton, DeKalb, Dougherty, Gainesville, Hall, Henry, Jones, Meriwether, Muscogee, Rabun, Richmond, Rockdale, Spalding, Valdosta and White.

"Georgia's Race to the Top application is built around four strategic initiatives that are important not just to Gwinnett County Public Schools, but also to our state and the nation," GCPS Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks said. "Those include teacher and leader development, a comprehensive data system, standards and assessments, and improving low performing schools. These state initiatives are very much in line with our work here in Gwinnett.

"We are pleased to be partners with the state in its application and hope Georgia will be successful at the next step in the process. The Race to the Top funding would be very beneficial as we continue our work to improve schools and increase student achievement."

Forty states and the District of Columbia submitted applications for Phase I of the Race to the Top grant competition. From those applications, the U.S. Department of Education invited 16 to send a five-member team to interview in Washington, D.C., in mid-March. The U.S. Department of Education estimates final winners will be announced in April.

The other finalists are Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee.

''These states are an example for the country of what is possible when adults come together to do the right thing for children,'' U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said.

Duncan said they are setting a high bar in the first phase and anticipate few winners.

''But this isn't just about the money,'' Duncan said. ''It's about collaboration among all stakeholders, building a shared agenda, and challenging ourselves to improve the way our students learn.''

Duncan has said the money could go to a total of 10 to 20 states.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.