Ill. one of 19 finalists for federal school money

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Illinois school officials hope more support from school districts and teachers unions will bolster the state’s chance at up to $400 million in federal stimulus money.

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — Illinois school officials hope more support from school districts and teachers unions will bolster the state’s chance at up to $400 million in federal stimulus money.

The U.S. Education Department on Tuesday announced Illinois is one of 19 finalists in the second round for "Race to the Top" school-reform money.

Ten to 15 finalists will share $3.4 billion after the competing states present their cases in August reviews in Washington, D.C., the U.S. Education Department said.

The federal government in March awarded $600 million to Tennessee and Delaware in the first round. Illinois finished fifth in that competition, officials said.

This time around, the state worked to gather support from local schools and the unions representing their employees, said state schools Superintendent Christopher Koch. The application boasts 524 of the state’s 869 school districts support the effort, compared with 366 districts last spring, education officials said.

"We’ve put together a very sensible application that takes us forward with education reform for the state," Koch said. "It’s reforms, most of which we’re going to do, and have to do, but this money will help us a great deal, to accelerate that."

"Race to the Top" seeks innovative plans for adopting rigorous academic standards, rewarding excellence among teachers, improving low-performing schools and building data systems to judge progress.

"A top-notch education for all Illinois students is our No. 1 priority, and we are in a great position to take full advantage of the federal funding," Gov. Pat Quinn said in a prepared statement.

Koch acknowledged that some states have complete support from their local officials and unions. But he noted Quinn has signed key legislation since the first round that overhauled principal preparation and certification, focusing more attention on instruction, that also should boost the state’s odds.

"Walking through the door, that’s a barrier I have to overcome with the reviewers," Koch said. "They know implementing something 869 times with integrity is hard to do."

Thirty-six states applied for the second round of funding. President Barack Obama would like to continue the program in the next budget year and has requested $1.35 billion.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.

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