Race to the Top win means $400 million for Ga.

Georgia has been awarded $400 million to invest in education reforms at the state level and in five metro districts and 21 others, having landed a spot in the winner’s circle in President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top competition.

Eight other states and the District of Columbia were picked Tuesday to share with Georgia in $3.4 billion that the Obama administration plans to distribute over four years.

This was Georgia’s second bid for funding through Race to the Top, a program designed to reward ambitious changes to improve schools and close the achievement gap. It hasn’t been without controversy. The program has drawn criticism along the way from politicians who worry about more federal involvement in the state’s education system; and teacher groups who felt left out of the application process.

The competition already has sparked a wave of reforms across the country, as states have sought to bolster their chances of winning the money by passing teacher accountability laws and lifting caps on charter schools.

Thirty-five states and the district have adopted rigorous common, college- and career-ready standards in reading and math, and 34 states have changed laws or policies to improve education. Georgia has done both.

The metro Atlanta school districts that have signed on to pilot Georgia’s reforms include the city of Atlanta and Cherokee, Clayton, DeKalb and Gwinnett counties.

Gov. Sonny Perdue began an impromptu news conference Tuesday afternoon about the state’s win, playfully asking reporters to move back from the podium.

“Wanda doesn’t have quite enough room to do cartwheels,” Perdue quipped, referring to state Board of Education Chair Wanda Barrs.

Perdue said the $400 million will be split between the state Department of Education and 26 local school districts that signed on as participants in Georgia’s Race to the Top application. State officials will be traveling to Washington to learn details, including when to expect the money.

“We will have to go to D.C. and present the budget in detail, so this is just the beginning of the process,” Perdue spokesman Bert Brantley said.

The state will use its money for professional training, a statewide system for tracking student achievement and development of teacher evaluation systems, the governor said.

Local school systems will develop their own programs to improve standards and test scores, with success being measured through data collected from statewide, uniform tests, he said.

“We are going to use this $400 million to literally show what we can do in transforming education,” he said.

The governor’s office has said that Race to the Top money cannot be used to offset the millions of dollars’ worth of budget cuts to education in recent years. But Brad Bryant, the new state superintendent of schools, told reporters Tuesday that a school system might be able to bring back some teachers if its plans require more teachers or more days of instruction.

Gwinnett school officials will be concentrating on three initiatives they believe can most improve student achievement: teacher effectiveness, leader effectiveness and personnel evaluation, said School Superintendent Alvin Wilbanks.

“Georgia’s selection as a Race to the Top grantee is a tremendous plus for education in the state and, consequently, the nation,” Wilbanks said.

Atlanta Public Schools will be exploring ways to restructure teacher rewards and compensation for its most effective teachers, said spokeswoman Morieka V. Johnson.

“Working with the state, we will work to improve our teacher and principal preparation programs that will include developing alternative pathways for aspiring educators,” Johnson said. “Additionally, we will work with the state to advance our evaluation system and effectiveness measures.”

Nationally, the other winners were Florida, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Rhode Island. Collectively, the 10 winners will impact 13.6 million students and 980,000 teachers in 25,000 schools.

Some political candidates have denounced the program as the federal government intruding in a state issue, but U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan dismissed those concerns.

“This is bigger than any governor or school chief,” he said, adding that states will be held accountable for what they do and could lose funding if problems are reported.

John Barge, the Republican nominee for state school superintendent, has been a critic of Race to the Top, saying the state would be giving up its constitutional obligation to educate its children “in exchange for a relatively small amount of money.”

However, Barge pledged Tuesday to “faithfully administer the programs and policies set by the governor and General Assembly.”

He applauded the governor and his staff for “this hard-fought victory.”

“They put a lot of hard work into this grant application, and they deserve a great deal of credit for all they do to help our children and our schools,” Barge said.

His opponent, Democrat Joe Martin, also applauded those who worked on Georgia’s winning application.

“We need all the help we can get,” Martin said.

But he said he expects Georgia’s reform plans will need to be adjusted.

“For example, the application includes a detailed compensation plan for all educators,” Martin said. “Any evaluation must recognize student performance, but the measures must be broader than scores on standardized tests.”

Georgia’s teacher groups have criticized the state’s Race to the Top application, mainly because they were not included in its development and also because they were concerned the program will benefit a limited number of districts.

The Georgia Association of Educators, one of the state’s two major teacher groups, issued a statement, saying the funds will be welcome.

“Although we still have concerns about omissions from the application process and how funds will be dispersed, any funding received during these dire economic times will be welcomed by those schools and systems blessed enough to receive them,” said Calvine Rollins, the group’s new president. “Our main concern was that these funds were not broad-based and would only be received by a very limited number of schools and systems.”

Georgia competed for funding in a first round of Race to the Top earlier this year. The state was the third highest scorer, but federal officials decided that only the top two applicants -- Tennessee and Delaware -- would share in $600 million in that round.

In this latest round, the District of Columbia, Georgia and 17 other states were named finalists last month. Georgia wound up finishing eighth among the 10 winners, even though its score between Round 1 and 2 actually went up 12.8 points.

Most applicants, who participated in Round 1, saw their scores increase by more than 30 points in Round 2, Duncan said in a conference call with reporters around the country.

Staff writer Kristina Torres contributed to this article.

In Perdue's words

Republican Gov. Sonny Perdue spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s editorial board last week and described the love-hate relationship he has with the Obama administration when it comes to education and health care. Here’s an excerpt from that discussion:

“Secretary [of Education Arne] Duncan knows his premise and the president’s premise of accountability in education is paramount -- integrity in testing is paramount -- to where they want to go in education. We’ve got this wonderful love-hate relationship. I love ‘em on education. I hate ‘em on health care. When he described in February after he took office about this Race to the Top, I said, ‘You know, Mr. Secretary, I think I’ve been reading your playbook because that’s where we’re heading.’ All those principles just align so much. I think Arne Duncan is an educator of the highest integrity, and I think he is leading our national school effort in a very positive direction, and I think he wants the right thing done.”

Who's participating

Twenty-six local school districts have signed on to partner with the state in implementing Georgia’s Race to the Top plan. These districts, which make up 41 percent of public school students in Georgia, include Atlanta, Ben Hill, Bibb, Burke, Carrollton, Chatham, Cherokee, Clayton, Dade, DeKalb, Dougherty, Gainesville, Gwinnett, Hall, Henry, Jones, Meriwether, Muscogee, Peach, Pulaski, Rabun, Richmond, Rockdale, Spalding, Valdosta and White. The participating districts, according to the governor’s office, include 46 percent of Georgia's students in poverty, 53 percent of Georgia’s African-American students, 48 percent of Hispanics and 68 percent of the state’s lowest-achieving schools.