Hamilton County Schools officials already are plotting how the district might spend its share of federal Race to the Top money after Tennessee was announced as a finalist Thursday.
Hamilton County Superintendent Jim Scales said he would like the system to look at a new assessment model for teachers, as well as programs aimed at recruiting and training quality educators.
"We were pretty optimistic in our hope that Tennessee would be a finalist in the first round," he said. "This gives us plenty of reason to start planning for if Tennessee is one of the winners."
Along with Georgia, Tennessee was one of 15 states and the District of Columbia that scored more than 400 points on the 500-point application. A handful of winning states - officials would say only say the number will be in the single digits - will be announced as winners in April.
"These applicants show what is possible when adults come together to do the right thing for children," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told reporters Thursday. "Each one has a shot at winning, but most will go home as finalists."
Winners in the first round of Race to the Top -- officials say the total will be in single digits -- will be announced in April.
RACE TO THE TOP
* $4.35 billion chunk of President Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act
* Will be distributed through competitive grants to states that applied
* Initially had 40 applicants that federal education officials have whittled down to 16
* Is meant to reshape the country's education system through reform focused on building better data systems to track student success, turning around failing schools and recruiting and retaining quality teachers
RACE TO THE TOP FINALISTS
* District of Columbia
* New York
* North Carolina
* Rhode Island
* South Carolina
Source: U.S. Department of Education
The winners will be awarded a share of less than half of the $4.35 billion pot in this first phase of the education reform competition.
Gov. Phil Bredesen said he believes one reason Tennessee has done so well in the competition is because lawmakers adopted education reform legislation during a special session in January.
"Tennessee is considered competitive in Race to the Top by national education reform experts because of the continued efforts we've demonstrated to public education reform," he said. "I have no doubt this was a significant part of our success."
State Education Commissioner Tim Webb likely will be headed to Washington, D.C., in mid-March to defend Tennessee's application and make a case for why the state should be awarded the entire $501 million requested on its application.
"The implementation pieces are pretty heavy lifts, there's a lot of work involved. I expect them to ask about our ability to deliver," Dr. Webb said. "I'm very confident. Very, very confident. The things that we're doing are very well-founded."
Throughout the Race to the Top competition, Tennessee has gotten accolades from national education officials for its data system that tracks student progress on state standardized tests.
Finalist Georgia also stands a chance of winning a $462 million cut of Race funding.
Gov. Sonny Perdue said making the list is "further proof that we are moving in the right directions to advance student achievement in our state."
Locally, only Walker County was among the 30 districts approached by state officials last fall as they sought out systems willing to be involved. Just 23 of Georgia's 180 school districts signed on to participate in the competition, records show.
Walker officials cited a lack of details and had questions about how the program worked.
Bert Brantley, communications director for Gov. Perdue, said systems like Walker that bowed out early won't have another chance to sign on. If Georgia doesn't win in the first round, the state will move ahead into the second round, but only the 23 original systems will be allowed to participate, Mr. Brantley said.
"The 23 that we have the (memorandums of understanding) with will be the 23 we move forward with," he said. "The best news about being a finalist is it's a great sign that you'll get funded in the second round.
After the final winners are chosen in April, nonwinners can apply for the money left over - likely more than half of the $4.35 billion - in phase two this summer. President Barack Obama also has requested an additional $1.35 billion for a possible phase three, which would allow individual school systems to apply.
The U.S. Department of Education will not give out all the money to winning states up front, Mr. Duncan said. If states are "acting in bad faith," the money will be taken away, he said.
If Tennessee wins money in phase one, at least half of it will be divvied up among all 136 school districts, Dr. Webb said. The larger a system's population of poor students, the more money it will receive. But the money is not then subject to Title I rules; it can be used on programs and personnel to benefit all students, Dr. Webb said.
Follow Kelli Gauthier on Twitter at twitter.com/gauthierkelli
Staff reporter Ben Benton contributed to this story.