Kentucky a finalist for Race to the Top education grants

Kentucky is one of 19 finalists that will compete for federal grants in the second round of the Race to the Top program.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who announced the finalists at the National Press Club in Washington on Tuesday, said representatives from the 19 finalists will be invited to make personal presentations to federal education officials in early August, with winners to be announced in September.

The grants are intended to reward states that make innovative efforts to help struggling schools and close achievement gaps.

Duncan said that $3.4 billion in grants will be handed out, or enough to give grants to "about 10 to 15 states."

Kentucky also was a finalist in the first round but lost out when federal officials picked only two winners, Tennessee and Delaware, which received more than $600 million between them. Kentucky hopes to win about $175 million in the second round, which it would use to fund educational reforms passed by the 2009 General Assembly.

Once again, however, Kentucky is the only finalist that lacks charter schools legislation. State education officials have said that issue was the main factor that put Kentucky out of the money in the first round.

They hope that improvements in Kentucky's second-round application will offset the lack of charters, which are schools specially licensed or chartered to operate outside many traditional education rules.

In addition to Kentucky, the second-round finalists are Arizona, California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and South Carolina.

Gov. Steve Beshear and Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday issued a joint statement Tuesday applauding Kentucky's selection.

"We are thrilled to once again see Kentucky in the list of finalists ... our selection reflects the high quality of our application and reinforces the validity of the work we are engaging in for Kentucky's children," Beshear said.

But in an interview later Tuesday, Holliday said he still thinks Kentucky's chances of winning are "50-50," noting that the lack of charter schools would knock about 30 points off the state's Race score.

Duncan did not rank the finalists Tuesday.

Holliday, however, said he thinks Kentucky probably ranks ninth to 15th among the 19 finalists. If that's true, everything could hinge on which states finish ahead of Kentucky in September, he said.

"If California and New York came in ahead of us, that could hurt because those are big states that would use up a lot of the available money," Holliday said.

Perhaps one positive sign for Kentucky was the presence of a Carter County school principal on the dais with Duncan at Tuesday's announcement.

Sherry Horsley, principal at West Carter Middle School in Olive Hill, was among several distinguished educators invited to appear with Duncan. Math and reading scores at West Carter improved dramatically under Horsley, and West Carter was named a Kentucky School to Watch for 2010.

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