By Lisa Lambert
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nine states will be eligible to compete for education grants of up to $50 million through President Barack Obama's "Race to the Top" program, the federal government said on Wednesday.
The states -- Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and South Carolina -- were picked in the third round of grant competition after they failed to win funding in their first two tries.
Race to the Top was created as part of the 2009 federal stimulus plan to encourage states to adopt unified education standards, implement teaching reforms and foster the spread of autonomous charter schools.
The program's popularity led Congress to add money for it in the fiscal 2011 budget. Most of the additional funding, $500 million, will go to an "Early Learning Challenge," the U.S. Education Department and Health and Human Services Agency said. That leaves $200 million for the third round of grants, which range in size from $10 million to $50 million.
The early learning challenge focuses on children from birth to age five.
The application period will open in the fall, the Education Department said, when the states will have to show "capacity and commitment around bold reform plans."
Obama is also pushing to create a Race to the Top spin-off in which individual school districts can compete.
Most of the funding for education in the stimulus plan was distributed via well-established formulas. Congress extended some of the funding last summer in a bid to prevent massive teacher layoffs.
That money runs out this summer, although states still face wobbly fiscal conditions due to the recession.
Because the stimulus required states to maintain education spending at pre-recession levels, many only trimmed spending on schools. But the requirement ends along with the money, and many are eyeing deeper education cuts as they attempt to close a total budget shortfall of at least $85 billion for the fiscal year that for most begins this summer.
Congress also has yet to reauthorize funding for the long-expired No Child Left Behind law.
Race to the Top has been criticized for its emphasis on charter schools, which can be operated by private corporations.
In an open letter to Obama in Education Week, Daniel Tanner, a professor at Rutgers University, recently wrote that "instead of undertaking the needed funding for a rich, full curriculum for the renewal of the American unitary school system, you are calling, in effect, for it to be dismantled and broken up into charter schools when the body of research fails to support your strategy."
(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Dan Grebler)