U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the Phase-one finalists for the Department’s $4.35 billion ‘Race to the Top’ competition today, March 4. Illinois, 14 other states and the District of  Columbia will advance as phase-one finalists.

States competing for Race to the Top funds were asked to document past education reform successes, and to outline plans to extend reforms using college and career-ready standards and assessments, to build a workforce of highly effective educators, to create educational data systems to support student achievement, and to turn around their lowest-performing schools.

On Jan. 19, the State of Illinois applied to obtain $510 million under the Race to the Top program. 

The 16 finalists were chosen from among the 40 states and the District of Columbia that submitted applications for phase 1. The finalists will be invited to the District of Columbia in mid-March to present their proposals and to engage in question and answer discussions with the reviewers. Winners for phase-one will be chosen from among the 16 finalists and announced in April.

Applications for phase-two will be due on June 1, with finalists announced in August and winners in September. The only states prohibited from applying in phase-two are those that receive awards in phase-one.

“We are setting a high bar and we anticipate very few winners in phase-one,” said Secretary Duncan. “But this isn’t just about the money. It’s about collaboration among all stakeholders, building a shared agenda, and challenging ourselves to improve the way our students learn. I feel that every state that has applied is a winner—and the biggest winners of all are the students.”

Illinois State Superintendent of Education, Christopher A. Koch, said in December that at least one-half of any grant received by the State in the Race to the Top competition will go to school districts that signed a Memorandum of Understanding, MOU, with the State of Illinois, agreeing to participate in the state’s educational reform initiatives that are part of the state’s application for a federal “Race to the Top” grant. 

The superintendents of both School Districts 65 and 202 signed the MOU and submitted it by the Jan. 11 deadline. According to ISBE’s website, 356 school districts in the State signed the MOU. 

If the State is not awarded Race to the Top funds, the MOU becomes null and void. ISBE has said, however, that it plans to continue implementing the school improvement initiatives even if it is not awarded Race to the Top funds.