States are jockeying for a new $5 billion pot of education money even before the contest has begun.
The Obama administration was opening the competition Thursday for grants for ideas like charter schools or judging teachers based on student test scores. Applications are due in January and the first round of grants will go out in April.
Fewer than half the states are likely to win the money, and several already have rewritten education laws and cut deals with unions to boost their chances.
"States have been doing some things to get in the ballpark," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Now states have to think about how they win. We're going to reward excellence here."
President Barack Obama's agenda is controversial. National teachers' unions, typically Democratic allies, have chastised him for relying too heavily on test scores and charter schools when the administration first proposed rules for the competition.
Their criticism is tempered now. "The department worked really hard to find the right balance," said Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4 million member American Federation of Teachers.
Unions had argued that student achievement is much more than a score on a standardized test, in part because only about one-third of teachers teach subjects and grades that are actually tested.
In response, the Education Department changed the rules to say that teachers and principals must be judged on several different measures of student achievement, but that test scores should play a significant role.
"I'm disappointed there's still a lot of focus on test scores tied to individual teachers," said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the 3.2 million member National Education Association.
"But I think as time moves forward, we'll have opportunities to work on that. I think there's more flexibility than there was before.
"I feel good that they opened the door a little," Van Roekel said. "They didn't open it far enough, but at least it's open, and I appreciate that."
While the unions feel better about the competition, plenty of criticism remains. Some education groups say the rules don't go far enough or miss the mark.
Saying test scores are "significant" leaves too much to interpretation, said Jeanne Allen, president of the nonprofit Center for Education Reform think tank.
"I think you've got the right intentions, and you've got some positive movement," Allen said. "But unless you're willing to be strict and firm about your expectations and leave nothing up to interpretation, a lot of people will get money without having done very much."
Duncan said that states won't be able to downplay or ignore test scores. "We've said `significant,'" he said. "We simply won't reward folks that do that. We mean what we say."
The Education Trust, a children's advocacy group, said the contest doesn't do enough to make sure poor and minority kids have good teachers. Those kids are more likely to have teachers without a degree or certification in the subjects they teach.
The rules say poor and minority students should have equal access to "highly effective teachers," which are defined as those whose students show high rates of academic growth.
But it will take time to figure out how to measure that growth, and even then, there is no guarantee it will work, said Amy Wilkins, lobbyist for the trust. Instead, she said, officials should use information they have now _ which teachers majored or minored in their subjects, how they scored on state licensure exams, how many years of experience they have.
All those qualifications have been shown to make a difference, she said.
"They are ignoring those indicators that are within reach, that people have in their hands," she said. "They didn't give poor kids and kids of color access to strong teachers. When poor kids are taught by better teachers, they do much better."
Joanne Weiss, the Education Department overseeing the grants, said states will be rewarded for taking aggressive steps to ensure that schools with large numbers of minority and poor students have teachers who are just as effective as schools with wealthier students.
Charter schools and test scores fit into four broad goals that Obama wants states to pursue _ tougher academic standards, better ways to recruit and keep effective teachers, a method of tracking student performance and a plan of action to turn around failing schools.
A state will have to meet a series of conditions to earn up to 500 points and boost its chances.