WASHINGTON - U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan hailed South Carolina on Thursday, naming it a finalist for a share of $4.35 billion in federal money for innovative education initiatives.
South Carolina was one of 15 states, and the District of Columbia, chosen from among 41 states that applied for Race to the Top grants to be paid for with the $787 billion economic stimulus bill that President Barack Obama signed into law in February 2009.
"Some people in South Carolina might be surprised that we're a finalist," said State Education Superintendent Jim Rex. "But, nationally, our state is viewed as being on the cutting edge of making the changes that will make schools stronger."
South Carolina requested $300 million in its 1,251-page application, made in January. Gov. Mark Sanford, who tried in vain last year to redirect $700 million in stimulus money to pay down state debt, met with Duncan in Washington last month to push the state's bid.
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"We're certainly encouraged by the news today, especially after the governor spent dividend-paying time with Secretary Duncan," said Ben Fox, Sanford's spokesman.
"We are putting unprecedented resources on the table to award states that are ready to dramatically reshape America's education system," Duncan told reporters. "We want them to be catalysts for education reforms across the country."
The winners will be chosen next month after interviews with representatives from the 15 states and the District of Columbia. A second round of applications will accepted in June.
Rex and S.C. deputy superintendent Betsy Carpentier, who oversaw South Carolina's application, will go to Washington for the interviews. Aides to Rex and Sanford said they did not know whether the governor will go, too.
The state's public school budget has been cut more than $700 million in the last 18 months. More cuts are expected in the education budget that takes effect July 1. The budget gap would be even wider were it not for $382 million in federal money.
The Race to the Top applications were controversial in some states because one condition for receiving the money is linking students' standardized test scores to teacher evaluations. Many local teachers groups opposed that requirement.
Duncan said fewer than 10 winners will be chosen to share $2 billion in the first round of awards. He said states could lose grants if they use the money to fill budget deficits or offset other cuts.
"If we see (the winning states) acting in bad faith, we'll simply shift funding to other states that are doing it the right way."
In its application, South Carolina proposed launching new dropout-prevention programs, outfitting more Montessori classrooms and giving incentives to teachers who agree to work in the most challenged schools.
Among the state's other proposals were building housing for teachers who agree to live and work in rural areas and creating high-tech labs for students to learn about advanced manufacturing and green engineering.
"South Carolina and many of its neighboring states have been national leaders in setting higher academic standards and in measuring students' progress in meeting those standards," said Alan Richard, an analyst with the Southern Regional Educational Board.
Other states named finalists included Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina and Tennessee.