In an effort to improve America's public schools, the Obama administration has dangled the ultimate carrot -- money. More than $4 billion of stimulus package money was offered through the U.S. Education Department's "Race to the Top'" grant program.
Of 41 states that applied, only two -- Delaware and Tennessee -- got a passing grade today. They will receive $600 million total, while the other 39 states will get nothing for now.
"This is about systemic reform really driving change at a state-level and these two states did a spectacular job of that," said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
The final number came as a surprise to many -- the Education Department originally suggested that as many as 10 of the original 41 applicants could ultimately win.
States were judged on their past success at education reform, as well as their plans to embrace common academic standards, improve teacher quality, create educational data systems, and turn around their lowest-performing schools.
The two winners will receive amounts close to their initial requests. Delaware will receive roughly $100 million and Tennessee $500 million.
Both Delaware and Tennessee agreed to tie teacher's evaluations to student performance and implement reforms in every school district statewide. Crucially, they also got nearly full support from the teacher's unions.
Experts believed Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana all had strong -- if not stronger -- applications, but what they lacked was the nearly unanimous support from local unions and school districts obtained by Delaware and Tennessee.
"I think this is a win for the unions. What it shows is they have veto power over state application. If they don't sign on, their states are unlikely to get funding," said Michael Petrilli, vice president for National Programs and Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
But Duncan said this afternoon that local support was just one of many factors considered in the applications.
"This is a 500-point competition. We looked for the strongest applications overall. Buy-in was a piece of the application. It was by no means the determining factor," Duncan told reporters on a conference call.
Duncan also said both Tennessee and Delaware have written new laws to support their policies and have demonstrated a commitment to turning their proposals into reality.
Teachers unions have praised the administration's approach: "The Education Department indicates that both states sought and listened to input from local school districts and teachers through their unions. This collaborative approach is essential to the success of the programs these federal funds will support -- without teacher buy-in, reforms have little chance of taking root for long-term success," American Federation of Teachers' President Randi Weingarten said in a statement.
Some have criticized the competition because the administration is pushing reform at a time when many states can barely afford to teach the basics.
But the Education Department believes reform can't wait.
America's public schools now rank 21st in the world in science and 25th in math -- behind such countries as Belgium, Iceland and the Czech Republic. Additionally, more than 25 percent -- more than a million American high school students a year -- drop out and never get their diplomas.