Kentucky is a finalist in the federal Race to the Top grant program, which will dole out $4 billion to help bolster teaching and student performance in a handful of states.
There are 16 finalists: Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee. There were 41 applicants.
Gov. Steve Beshear and Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday issued a joint statement Thursday afternoon crediting cooperative efforts by various groups for putting together the state's application, which was filed last month.
"All the experts never mentioned Kentucky as being a finalist," Holliday said. "So I think we were somewhat of a surprise to the experts."
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The next step, Beshear and Holliday said, will be for the state to defend its application before federal reviewers in Washington. Kentucky probably will present its case March 16 or 17, Holliday said.
Four to six winners are expected to be announced in April.
If Kentucky wins, the state plans to use its share of the money — up to $200 million — to help implement Senate Bill 1, the education reform measure passed by the General Assembly last year. It is expected that much of the money would go to develop a new statewide student testing program and prepare teachers for new, tougher content standards. Universities also could receive money to help train teachers and aspiring teachers.
Kentucky education advocates generally said they were delighted by the state's selection as a finalist.
"It's a testament to the House and Senate working together last year to enact SB 1," said Cindy Heine, associate executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. "It provided a strong foundation for our application and let us move forward more rapidly than other states."
But Jim Waters, director of the conservative-leaning Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, contended Thursday that the state's application offers no "real innovation or change in Kentucky's education system," because it lacks provisions for charter schools.
Some Republican state legislators tried to include charter schools — public schools that have been given permits or "charters" to operate independently from customary state regulations — in the application, but the effort failed.
Waters questioned how Kentucky's application made the cut because the Obama administration has indicated that applications without charter school provisions would be at a disadvantage.
"If this really is about reforming education, how can you approve an application that doesn't offer any real change?" Waters said. "How is this going to improve our performance? Charter schools have proven they work."
Kentucky Education Department officials collaborated with the state Council on Postsecondary Education to compile the application.
Holliday said he thought several factors strengthened Kentucky's bid. He noted that every Kentucky school district signed off on the application. Holliday also cited the General Assembly's quick passage of House Bill 176 this year, providing new authority to reform failing public schools. The bill was specifically intended to boost Kentucky's application.
In a related education advance, Kentucky recently became the first state to adopt new common core content standards for math and English in grades K-12.
Robert L. King, president of the Council on Postsecondary Education, said Thursday that the state's share could be about $175 million based on Kentucky's population, although the application asked for $200 million.
"Clearly, if we were to win one of these grants, having the financial resources, particularly at a time when the state's own resources are limited because of the economy, would be enormously helpful to all of us," King said.
Joe Brothers, chairman of the Kentucky Board of Education, called Kentucky's selection "great news" but cautioned that more work must be done.
"It's kind of like getting to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament," Brothers said. "Now we have to get to the Elite Eight."
The applications were scored in several areas, including: prioritizing education funding; closing the achievement gap between poor, disabled and minority students and their peers; adopting uniform academic standards; openness to helping strong charter schools succeed; and improving teacher and principal quality.
"Some people question how do we do reform when budgets are tight. I say we simply can't afford to not do reform," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
The Obama administration lauded the competition's effect on spurring widespread reform. However, some education analysts questioned the selection of largely East Coast states and Southern right-to-work states, as well as states like Kentucky, where the charter school movement has been slow to take hold.