U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced Thursday morning that Florida is among 16 finalists to receive a share of the nation's largest single influx of discretionary money ever into public schooling.
Forty states and the District of Columbia have applied for a piece of the $4.35 billion education reform grant, which aims to shake up the way schools do business. Florida is seeking more than $1 billion of the pot.
In addition to Florida, the finalists are: Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee. The U.S. Department of Education plans to interview representatives from each state about their plans the week of March 15, and to announce the states to receive the money in April.
"Most of them will go home as finalists, not as winners," Duncan, who will choose the recipients, said in an afternoon press conference.
Florida education commissioner Eric J. Smith said his staff already is fine tuning its presentation. At the same time, he added, the state continues to work on different aspects of the plan to make Race to the Top reforms a reality in Florida regardless of whether it gets the money.
The Legislature, for instance, is pushing ahead with new laws relating to teacher tenure, graduation requirements, merit pay and the like.
"Race to the Top is not just another grant application. It is embedded in all the work that we're doing with reform her in Florida," Smith said. "This is who we are and this is what we are trying to do."
Duncan declined to discuss specifics of any of the applications, as the competition is ongoing. He said reviewers' analysis of each submission, along with video of each interview, will be made public after the winners are named.
Praise for the decision started flowing immediately. Senate hopeful U.S. Rep. Kendrick Meek, D-Miami, said it's time to take Florida's education to the next level, and Race to the Top is the way to get there.
"Race to the Top is a pioneering program to award innovation and high-performance in our schools, and Florida is well-positioned to use this funding to make a difference for our children," Meek said in a statement. He said he is "confident that Florida will win this critical funding to put our children on a path to success and meet the challenges of the 21st century."
Gov. Charlie Crist, also running for Senate, lauded the state Education Department, school districts, organizations and individuals who worked to craft a strong application.
"This unprecedented opportunity will strengthen our students, our teachers and our schools, and I'm confident that our bold application will bring us victory in this critical race," he said in a release.
Experts considered Florida a favorite from the outset because of its detailed application paired with its strong past efforts in changing education.
Over the past decade, Florida has implemented many of the reforms that Race to the Top embraces, such as charter schools, merit pay for teachers and data collection for education decision-making, noted Thomas W. Carroll, president of the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability.
Carroll is one of a handful of people nationally who has read all of the Race to the Top applications.
He praised Florida for having a detailed explanation of what it has done historically to improve its education system, followed by an analysis of what's needed to get to the next level and how it would spend the grant money to get there.
Because Florida has a track record of reform, plus an infrastructure to accomplish its goals and the political will to get there, it has a strong chance of making the ultimate cut, Carroll said.
"People have figured out what the right thing is to say, in part because Race to the Top is so prescriptive," he said. "The challenge for reviewers is sorting out the pretenders from those who have demonstrated capacity to execute. That's the clear edge that Florida has."
Education Week recently rated Florida's application as the most likely winner, too. And former U.S. Education official Grover J. Whitehurst, who worked in the George W. Bush administration, told Bloomberg News that he considered Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee the most likely states to get the federal money.
Many observers expected the list of finalists to be much smaller, based largely on Duncan's pledge that he would pick only the most rigorous plans for the unprecedented program. Criticism started coming almost instantly for the selection of certain states that have failed to adopt reforms, such as a charter school law, when given the chance.
"It is a sad day for reformville," Fordham Institute vice president for national programs Mike Petrilli wrote on that group's blog.
Duncan explained that the 16 finalists all scored more than 400 points on the 500-point scale, and that each has a legitimate chance of receiving the grant. Rather than just choose a small number to start, he said, the decision was to give each a chance to make its case in person.
"We really wanted to be as inclusive as possible," Duncan said.
As the process moves ahead, the big question mark for Florida remains whether a lack of support from its teachers unions will handicap the application. Duncan repeatedly spoke of the need for collaboration to make the reforms happen.
Just five of the state's 67 local unions — Hillsborough and Sarasota were among them — signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing to negotiate terms on all parts of the package. They particularly object to pieces that would tie their evaluations and pay rates to student test results.
Carroll said the state deserved a badge of courage for standing up to the unions, and figured the disagreement would not hurt the state's chances overall of getting the grant.
"I think ultimately their application is so strong is other aspects," he said. "I don't think the unions are going to be able to tank it."
Smith said he is concerned about the lack of union participation. But he added that the unions and local superintendents are still talking about ways to get more involvement, and that once they see how much flexibility really is in the program, more will join in.
Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association, said the union doesn't want to stand in the way. It wants to have a more active role in the state's effort to effect reform, though.
"We're happy that Florida has become a finalist for the Race to the Top federal grant money," Pudlow said. "But we still have concerns about the scope of the state DOE's application and that the cost of what the DOE proposes will far exceed the money provided by the federal government over the life of the four-year grant."
The FEA also has continuing concerns that the state Education Department did not create its Race to the Top plan in conjunction with educators.
"We hope that if Florida wins a Race to the Top grant that the state DOE will make sure that true collaboration actually takes place with the districts that will participate," Pudlow said.
Duncan stressed that collaboration, courage and commitment will be critical factors in his final choices for Race to the Top recipients. He called the debate among teacher unions and policy makers as they approach reforms "tough ... but desperately needed," and figured in the end the adults will come together to do what's best for students.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.