ATLANTA -- The U.S. Department of Education on Monday awarded Delaware and Tennessee $600 million as part of the competitive "Race to the Top" program to help states improve student performance and transform struggling schools.
The states, selected from 16 finalists, received the grants in the first round of the $4.35 billion federal competition, with both tweaking their education laws and enlisting the support of their school districts and teachers unions to better their chances.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised Tennessee and Delaware because all of their school districts approved the applications for the money. Tennessee will get $500 million, and Delaware will receive $100 million, he said.
"This is not about a pilot or a model," he said in a call with reporters. "They were trying to reach every child in their state."
Observers say the winners took to heart the education reforms pushed by the Obama administration, including performance pay for teachers and welcoming charter school policies.
In Tennessee, lawmakers passed a new law during a special session in January that requires half of teacher evaluations to be based on student achievement data, a key reform pushed by the Obama administration, as part of an effort to better their chances.
Lawmakers also lifted the state's cap on the number of charter schools that can open each year and setting up a statewide school district specifically for failing schools. They got their teachers to sign off on the plan, too.
"This is a landmark opportunity for Tennessee," Gov. Phil Bredesen said in a news release. He added, "The funds provided by the grant will carry us forward in a dramatic and positive direction."
Delaware had all of its school districts and teachers approve its application, a document that highlighted the state's new law allowing educators to be removed from the classroom if they are rated "ineffective" for two to three years.
The state also offers financial incentives to top-notch educators willing to work in failing schools and in high-demand subjects. It will also hire coaches to meet with small groups of teachers several times a month to develop lesson plans based on student test data.
"While we are very pleased Secretary Duncan has agreed to partner with us in these efforts, we have a lot of hard work and tough decisions ahead of us as we make these reforms a reality," state Education Secretary Lillian Lowery said in a statement.
The winners beat out: Colorado, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and South Carolina.
Federal officials will collect a second round of applications for the highly selective program in June. The states that were not picked this time can reapply for grants then.
"A lot of people said 'They're going to end up giving it to lots of states' and 'the federal government can never really be selective.' It turns out they actually were," said Kati Haycock, president of The Education Trust, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C.-based think tank. "They're setting the bar this high that only two states met it, it sends a very powerful message."
Officials said Georgia and Florida were third and fourth in the rankings for the grants, which means they may have an advantage over other states for the second round of grants. Still, most of the finalists are already vowing to reapply for the money.
"We were honored to be one of only 16 finalists for this highly competitive grant, and we will immediately begin working on our application for the next round of funding," said Deborah A. Gist, Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education in Rhode Island.
The grant program is part of President Barack Obama's economic stimulus law, which provided $100 billion for schools.
The Education Department asked states to concentrate their proposals on four areas: adopting standards and assessments to better prepare students for careers and college; getting high-quality teachers into classroom; turning around low-performing schools; and creating data systems to track performance.
Forty states and Washington, D.C., applied for the grants, scrambling to widen charter school laws and enact performance pay for teachers to prove that they deserved part of the money.
Some education observers have criticized the competition, saying the administration is out of touch because it is pushing reform at a time when states can barely afford basic necessities and are laying off teachers by the hundreds.
Applications were read and scored by panels of five peer reviewers. The 16 with the highest average score visited Washington this month to present their proposals.
Associated Press writers Erik Schelzig in Nashville, Tenn., Christine Armario in Miami, Michelle R. Smith in Providence, R.I. and Randall Chase in Dover, Del., contributed to this report.