By Nick Anderson and Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, March 5, 2010; B01
The Obama administration gave a major lift Thursday to the reform agenda of Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and D.C. charter school leaders, announcing that the District had joined 15 states as finalists in an unprecedented $4 billion contest for federal aid.
The District beat out 25 states, including Virginia, with a proposal to "drastically reduce" the number of low-achieving schools, increase standardized test scores by five percentage points a year, and raise graduation and college enrollment rates. The plan would build on Rhee's drive to use achievement data to assess teacher effectiveness, link pay to performance and improve instruction -- ideas that have drawn her national attention and union opposition.
Through the Race to the Top competition, President Obama hopes to catalyze innovation across the country. Among his goals: expansion of effective charter schools, an overhaul of antiquated teacher evaluation systems and other experiments to turn around struggling schools. D.C. leaders contend that many of the city's schools are already on that path, even though they have far to go to reach the level of high-performing suburban schools.
"I think it was an excellent application that captured the innovative and excellent things happening here in D.C.," said Lisa Raymond, a member of the D.C. State Board of Education. "We really are at the forefront of education reform. I think it could be an opportunity for the administration to create a model right here in the view of the White House."
At stake for D.C. schools is $20 million to $75 million. There is no assurance that the District will win anything; Education Secretary Arne Duncan warned that many finalists will not be winners. He said the 16 were chosen based on initial scoring by panels of experts. Each of them reached at least 400 points on a 500-point scale weighted toward Obama's priorities.
Other finalists are Colorado (the only Western state to make the cut), Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island (scene of a recent battle over turning around a failing school), 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," Duncan said in a statement. "Everyone that applied for Race to the Top is charting a path for education reform in America."
Analysts pointed to surprises among the finalists, including New York, Ohio and Kentucky. It was also notable that the most populous state, California, missed the cut even though its legislature approved a significant school-improvement plan.
"I'm disappointed," said Jack O'Connell, California's superintendent of public instruction. "We put forth a solid, thoughtful application. The systemic reforms we made, we made because they're the right educational strategies. It was an unprecedented opportunity to actually fund the reforms."
O'Connell said he was unsure whether the state would reapply, as federal officials are urging.
"We're not going to go through the drill again if it's more of the same," he said. "We had our best people working on it. Our time may be better spent helping school districts here in California."
Maryland did not apply in the first round but aims to do so by June in a second round.
Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who had pressed his state's case with federal officials, said the state would reapply.
"Today's decision in Washington shows that we have waited far too long to bring new positive public school innovations like charters, college laboratory schools and virtual schools to young people in the state," McDonnell said in a statement. "I look forward to helping lead a bipartisan effort to bring innovation and opportunities to Virginia's public schools, to the benefit of students, parents and teachers."
Finalists face a series of interviews before winners are announced in April. Duncan has the final call on who wins, but aides say he will lay out in detail his justification if he departs from the expert rankings.
The District's finalist status suggests that it will continue to be a prominent venue for educational experiments.
Rhee deflected suggestions that the District's location inside the Capital Beltway gave it an edge.
"I don't think that played into it, based on what I've heard about the process," she said. "One of the competitive advantages is that we're a small jurisdiction where all the stakeholders can get into the room and get on the same page."
The District's 189-page application was drafted by officials from the school system, charter schools and the office of the state superintendent of education under the direction of Deputy Mayor Victor Reinoso.
These sectors have not always worked in harmony, but Rhee said the application process could be a turning point.
"We were pleasantly surprised at how aligned all of our priorities were and how each of the groups pushed each other's thinking," Rhee said.
Staff writer Anita Kumar contributed to this report.