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By Shannon McCaffrey and Dorie Turner

ATLANTA - Hours after saying he would reject "Race to the Top" money for schools, Republican gubernatorial hopeful Nathan Deal reversed course Tuesday and said he would keep the federal funds.

At a morning candidate forum, Deal said he would decline the grant money because accepting it would require the state to sign on to a standardized classroom curriculum. Later, Deal told The Associated Press he was incorrect and that such a curriculum is not a condition of the program.

"I have to stand corrected," Deal said in a telephone interview. "I would keep the money."

Karen Handel, Deal's opponent in the Aug. 10 runoff, told business leaders at Tuesday's forum that she would accept the money - which could total $400 million - if Georgia is chosen.

"As long as we're paying taxes to the federal government I think I have a responsibility to make sure Georgia gets its fair share," Handel said. "I do think we should not turn our nose up at it."

At the forum hosted by the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, Deal said the federal money comes with "strings attached," namely that the state would have to stick to a standardized curriculum. There is no standardized curriculum component of Race to the Top, but states are encouraged to adopt Common Core, a state-led initiative headed in part by Gov. Sonny Perdue that outlines what students should know by the time they graduate high school.

Handel's campaign seized on the misstep.

"Nathan should try to understand policy before he tries to use it to make political hay," said Handel spokesman Dan McLagan.

Georgia is one of 19 finalists in the second round of the $3.4 billion "Race to the Top" school reform grant competition, which aims to encourage innovation among states that will close the achievement gap and turn around the lowest performing schools.

Gov. Sonny Perdue has made the state's application a top education priority and has pushed through reforms - like adopting Common Core and forming a study committee to create a merit pay system for educators - to make the state more competitive.

Georgia just missed winning the money in the first round, placing third out of 40 states. Just two states - Delaware and Tennessee - won grants in March, totaling $600 million.

Winners are expected to be announced in late August or early September.

Deal, a former congressman from North Georgia, and Handel, the former secretary of state, are battling for the Republican nomination for governor in next week's runoff. They were the top vote getters in the July 20 primary.

The winner will face Democrat Roy Barnes in the November general election.

Barnes' campaign said the state should keep the funds if it wins.

Under Georgia's "Race to the Top" application, the state would spread its grant money to 26 participating school districts out of the 180 in the state.

Those districts, which represent nearly half of the students in Georgia, include many in Deal's former congressional district in north Georgia.

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