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Illinois is a finalist, but Missouri loses out in first round of Race to the Top

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 4, 2010 - In the race to the top of the education heap, Illinois has opened a big lead over Missouri.

The federal government announced Thursday that Illinois is among the 16 first-round finalists for a share of the $4.35 billion grant program known as Race to the Top. Winners will be announced in April. It is seeking $510 million.

Missouri, which was seeking $743 million, did not make the list of 15 states and the District of Columbia, but Chris Nicastro, commissioner of elementary and secondary education for the state, says work is already beginning on an application for the second round of funding. That application is due June 1, with finalists announced in August and winners in September.

"From the outset," Nicastro said in a statement, "we knew the competition for Race to the Top grants would be intense, and that most states would not be funded in the first phase. We worked very hard, though, to put together a bold, comprehensive proposal that provides clear direction for our work in the months ahead.

"We are receiving excellent feedback on our proposal, which will help us refine our application for second-round funding. I continue to be optimistic that Missouri will be among the states offering leadership for improving public schools as part of the overall Race to the Top agenda."

Applications from Illinois and Missouri were among 41 submitted for the grants in the program known as RT3. States were asked to spell out their plans in four specific areas:

  • Turning around low-performing schools
  • Extending education reforms using standards and assessment to make sure students are ready for college or careers
  • Creating data systems to support student achievement
  • Building a workforce of effective educators

Within each category, the Department of Education assigned detailed point systems to score the state proposals.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has stressed that states that can show past success are the ones most likely to win the Race to the Top money, and the competition will be stiff.

"We are setting a high bar," he said in a statement announcing the first-round finalists, "and we anticipate very few winners in phase 1. 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.

"I feel that every state that has applied is a winner -- and the biggest winners of all are the students."

Gov. Pat Quinn said a delegation from Illinois will travel to Washington to discuss the state's effort with education officials. He said that newly enacted laws and policies helped the state make it out of the first round, including a law signed earlier this year to allow non-profit organizations to offer alternative teacher certification programs.

"A fulfilling and top-notch education for all Illinois students is our number one priority," Quinn said in a statement, "and we are in a great position to take full advantage of this federal funding. Today's announcement put us one step closer to securing 'Race to the Top' education funding. In these tough economic times, we are working harder than ever to bring federal money home to Illinois."

The Department of Education said states would not be able to see the scores on their first-round applications until next month, when the winners are named, so they won't necessarily know where they fell short and have to improve if they want to succeed in the second phase.

But in Missouri, Nicastro said a series of work groups will be convening shortly to work on five areas, including developing a model curriculum based on common core standards; developing a comprehensive data system; improving the preparation of teachers and other education leaders; measure the effects of teachers and leaders; and making the Department of Education more efficient and more effective.

The state will also be hiring a consultant to help shape its second-round application. That effort began even before Thursday's announcement of the first-round finalists.

The money for the Race to the Top grants is part of the $787 billion stimulus program passed by Congress last year. President Obama has said he wants to add more funds for a second year of the program, where grants could go not only to states but also directly to school districts.

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

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.