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New 'Race to the Top' details officially released; money will go directly to schools

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The U.S. Department of Education released details of the 2012 Race to the Top competition today for nearly $400 million in federal dollars that will, for the first time, go directly to school districts rather than their states.

The competition was launched in 2009 and has been lauded by federal education officials as inspiring nationwide education reform and working to improve "student achievement and educator effectiveness."

"We want to help schools become engines of innovation through personalized learning so that every child in America can receive the world-class public education they deserve," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement.

Districts or groups of districts that serve at least 2,000 students with 40 percent or more students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches will be able to apply for the competition.

The four-year awards will range from $5 million to $40 million, depending on the population of the students served, according to the department. It expects to make 15 to 25 awards.

A "competitive preference" will be offered to applicants who form partnerships with public and private organizations, said Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education.

A district must show a commitment to four areas of reform in its application, including adopting standards to prepare students for success in college and the workplace; building data systems to measure student growth and success, and inform school staff as to how they can improve instruction; recruit, develop, reward and retain effective school staff; and turn around the "lowest-achieving schools."

California has unsuccessfully tried to compete for these dollars three times in the last two years, often losing out because of budgetary or political reasons. L.A. Unified Superintendent John Deasy and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa have lobbied hard in Washington, D.C., for such changes to the competition.

Allowing districts to apply directly and qualify for larger awards based on their size is especially good news for L.A. Unified, as it is the nation's second-largest school district. Deasy said that he was "extremely pleased" by the changes and that the district plans to apply for "the maximum" funds, or $40 million, to help with a tough budget year.

"Most of the change really takes place at the district level and we had places across the country...who could really use a shot at helping to take change to the next level," Hamilton said.

Hamilton said the department is especially interested in districts putting together "bold plans that focus on the use of technology and personalized learning. So we really want to help create 21st century classrooms to give our students 21st century skills."

In an address outlining L.A. Unified's priorities for the coming school year Thursday, Deasy said the district was committed to putting tablets and the necessary digital technology to teach the Common Core standards in the hands of every student over the next 15 months.

L.A. Unified has also worked to institute a lot of the previously required reforms of Race to the Top on its own, including the collection of attendance data and a requirement that student performance be a factor in teacher evaluations.

Hamilton said many of the aims of the program are about "fundamentally changing the way you deliver instruction. Yes, it's about access to technology, but it's also about how you use it. And we want to give school districts the chance to put their best foot forward and show the rest of the country how they're going to fundamentally revolutionize the way that we use technology in the classroom." 

Districts interested in applying must notify the U.S. Department of Education of their intent to apply by Aug. 30. The department is planning to offer webinars and conference calls to provide districts with assistance on filling out the application in the next weeks. Applications are due Oct. 30 and awards will be announced no later than Dec. 31, 2012.

Tami Abdollah can be reached via email and on Twitter (@latams).

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