How Tennessee and Delaware Won $600 Million for Schools

Support from local teachers seems to have helped these states get millions in federal funding.

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Markell said that he believed that the widespread community support for the state's plan helped it win. "In Delaware, we don't have to choose between consensus and being bold," he says. "You get the best of both worlds." 

"We've worked very collaboratively with our governor here," said Diane Donohue, the president of the Delaware teachers union. "Much of the reform efforts are hinged on defining student growth. It's crucial that the union be part of that conversation." 

Tennessee's plan also had broad political, civic, and labor support. All of the state's school districts and nearly all of the district union leaders signed on. A group founded by former Sen. Bill Frist, a Republican, worked closely with Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, in developing Tennessee's plan. Frist praised Bredesen's leadership on the issue and said that "for a state that's typically on the bottom rung of the national education rankings, it's remarkable that we now are at the leading edge of the national reform movement." 

By contrast, Florida and Louisiana, which submitted applications that closely matched the Education Department's specifications, did not win local support. Florida's proposal called for ending teacher tenure, and the Florida Education Association actively encouraged school districts not to support the state's application. Most districts supported the plan anyway, but the union leaders did not. In Louisiana, many districts declined to participate. 

National Education Association President Dennis van Roekel said that states thinking of applying for the second round of funding should learn from the grants awarded today. "It says that if you didn't involve the teachers the first time around, it's important to do it the second time around." 

Duncan was asked at a news conference how the position of the teachers unions contributed to the decision to choose Delaware and Tennessee. Duncan said that "buy-in was a piece of the scoring but not the whole thing." 

"What was very impressive about Delaware and Tennessee is that they are touching 100 percent of the kids in their states" and "doing it in a very convincing way," Duncan said. 

Some observers worried that states that submit strong, reform-minded applications that are not supported by union leaders will not have a chance in the second round. But an alternate analysis is that the first-round loss will put pressure on local and union leaders to participate, because they might be seen as standing in the way of states receiving a badly needed cash infusion. 

Some education advocates and policy analysts called the decision to give awards to only two states an impressive stroke of political courage. "It's pretty darn brave," says Amy Wilkins, principal partner of the Education Trust, which advocates policies to improve teaching for low-income students. Administration officials are "sending a very clear signal about what is important to them." 

Richard Lee Colvin is the editor of the Hechinger Report, an independent, nonprofit news organization specializing in covering education. It is based at Teachers College at Columbia University.