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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michel Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have passed through to the finals in the second round of the federal government's Race to the Top. The program is at the center of Education Secretary Arne Duncan's effort to spark innovation and competition among the nation's schools. To compete for a share of roughly $4 billion in award money, states must submit proposals outlining education reforms under way.

NORRIS: States must prove, among other things, that they're recruiting and evaluating quality teachers, fostering the growth of charter schools, and turning around failing schools. The program has had its share of critics, including vocal opposition from teachers unions. Earlier today I spoke with Secretary Duncan, and asked if he's comfortable with Race to the Top being called a contest.

Secretary ARNE DUNCAN (Education Department): Well, I think what it really is, is it gives states an opportunity to demonstrate their courage, their commitment to reform and ultimately, their capacity to deliver great results. And what we're seeing across the country, as you know, is this tremendous avalanche, this outpouring of remarkable progress. And the leadership is never going to come from us; it's always going to come at the local level. And I think what we've done is, we're simply giving people the space and the opportunity to demonstrate the remarkable commitment to improving public education in this country.

NORRIS: Now, as you know, not all governors are comfortable with this process. Colorado Governor - Democrat - Bill Ritter said that the Race to the Top judging process is much like the Olympic Games, and he felt like they were American skaters facing a Soviet judge from the 1980s.

What do you say to governors who aren't comfortable with the process and aren't sure if they want to participate in the next round?

Sec. DUNCAN: Well, we've had 46 states participate, so almost everybody has participated. If you go back to Governor Ritter, I think I've talked to him a lot they not only participated, they're a finalist in this round. I think he was, you know, maybe a little frustrated, a little upset that they didn't win the first round. And that's understandable. But it was a very, very fair and objective process, and they'll put the best foot forward in the second round.

And - but what we're seeing has been just amazing results. I think people will tell you, you've seen more reform in the past 18 months than you have, maybe, in the past decade in this country. And that's because of the leadership and the courage at the local level.

NORRIS: Was that part of the goal, to not just hand out the money, but to jumpstart that conversation?

Sec. DUNCAN: Oh, absolutely. This isn't about the money. Folks don't understand, while $4 billion sounds like a lot of money - Race to the Top - that $4 billion represents less than 1 percent of what our country spends on K-12 education every year. We spend $650 billion. So it's really not about the money. It's, again, it's unleashed this creativity and innovation that's absolutely remarkable. And raising standards is an absolute game changer.

NORRIS: In the first round of Race to the Top, only two states came out winners, and that turned into a little bit of a headache for the department. You said that this round could produce 15 winners. How has the competitive criteria changed, and what did you learn from that first round?

Sec. DUNCAN: It hasn't changed at all. And we anticipate probably having somewhere between 10 and 15 folks receiving money the second round. We had two phenomenal applications in the first round. But again, we are seeing great, great progress between the first and second rounds. And that happened, in part, because we kept our powder dry, and people saw more than $3.4 billion still available in the second round.

And the applications, as good as they were in the first round, were even better. And so by keeping a high bar, I think we let folks know how serious we were about this. And again, I've just been absolutely inspired by the level of commitment shown across the country.

NORRIS: Some of the states say they can't compete, or they don't feel like they can put the best foot forward because they just don't have the resources to do the paperwork and put together a 2,000-, 3,000-page application. Are you concerned that in the end, you might be rewarding states that are really good at grant writing as opposed to states that really have collected the best and the brightest ideas?

Sec. DUNCAN: Yeah. We considered that very, very closely, and that's why we interview all of the finalists, all of the winning teams. So I'm not interested at all in a fancy PowerPoint presentation and good grant writers. What I am interested in is looking at the courage and the capacity and the commitment and the collaboration of leadership teams in these states, and their ability to deliver results. This is much less a competition between states and much more, really, checking states' capacity internally to deliver against their plans.

NORRIS: Let's talk for a minute about the unions and the teachers. Teachers groups seem to be turning against your administration. And individual teachers have told our reporters that they have never felt more vulnerable than they do right now. The president of the teachers union, the National Education Association, said this at the group's annual convention earlier this month. Let's take a quick listen.

(Soundbite of convention speech)

DENNIS VAN ROEKEL (President, National Education Association) : Today, our members face the most anti-educator, anti-union, anti-student environment that I have ever experienced. The unfounded attacks on our salaries, pensions, rights, credentials, schools and students are out of control. And yes, our members are angry and I'm angry, too. We hope for a federal government that would create programs to help students in need. And what did we get? We got Race to the Top.

NORRIS: Why do you think he feels that way? Why is he so angry about the Race to the Top, and why is he so disappointed in the administration?

Sec. DUNCAN: Well, actually, we worked very, very closely together. And I have a great working relationship with Dennis Van Roekel at the NEA, and Randy Weingarten at the AFT. And I think theyre great, visionary leaders with courage. And it's actually interesting, the two states that won in the first round were actually states with tremendous NEA participation - 100 percent support.

The reality, though, is we're facing, as you know, extraordinarily tough budget times around the country. This is a very, very difficult time for education. And we have to rally the entire nation behind this effort. All of us have to work together, and that's what this is about.

NORRIS: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, thank you so much for being with us.

Sec. DUNCAN: Thanks so much, and I look forward to doing it again with you.

NORRIS: That's the secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.

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