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Florida Named Finalist for the Race to the Top

Florida is one of 16 finalists that could receive up to $1 billion in federal grant money for public schools that could dramatically change the way the state's schools operate.

“Florida's now in the Sweet 16 and it's great news,” Gov. Charlie Crist said at a news conference Thursday. “And that gives us the potential to receive $1 billion for education in Florida.”

Race to the Top, the Obama administration's $4.35 billion competitive grant program, awards money to schools that present bold education reform plans. And if the state gets the money, the way schools do business could dramatically change. The state's plan calls for a merit-based pay system for teachers as well as heightened graduation standards, both of which are the subject of current legislation before Florida lawmakers.

But the two tenants of the application were so contentious that the majority of the state's teacher unions refused to sign on in support of the state's effort to get the money. If the state is awarded the money, the district officials, including the union, must create a district-wide plan that is in line with the state's goals. But, the union must sign on to the agreement if a school district wants to receive the money.

“No agreement, no money,” state Education Commissioner Eric Smith said.

There was some initial concern from state officials that the union's disapproval could torpedo Florida's chances at the money. However, Florida's application has been received positively and mentioned as a likely winner by several education insiders.

Smith said the union support would certainly help, but he believes that the state submitted a strong application, regardless.

“We do feel that it's aggressive and bold,” he told reporters.

Smith will travel to Washington D.C. in a few weeks to present the plans to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and other U.S. Department of Education officials. Duncan said Thursday that there is no one factor, such as a lack of union support, that would ruin a state's chances, but he does want to meet with all the finalists to talk about the applications.

“We want to find out people's capacity to implement their plans,” he said.

Forty states and the District of Columbia submitted applications for the grant, which were scored on a 500 point scale. Duncan said the 15 states and D.C. all scored more than 400 points. The winners will be chosen in April after the interview process concludes.

There is no set number of states that will receive the money, but Duncan said it will be in the single digits. There is a second round to the process which will allow states to revamp their applications and reapply for the money.

The sixteen finalists are Colorado, Delaware, Washington D.C., Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee.

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