The Carolinas, 16 other states and the District of Columbia were named finalists Tuesday in the second round of the federal "Race to the Top" school reform grant competition, giving them a chance to receive a share of $3.4 billion.
The other states are Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.
The competition rewards ambitious reforms aimed at improving struggling schools and closing the achievement gap. Dozens of states have passed new education policies to foster charter school growth and modify teachers' evaluations, hoping to make themselves more attractive to the judges.
In a speech announcing the finalists at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Tuesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said a "quiet revolution" of education reform is taking place across the country.
"It's being driven by great educators and administrators who are challenging the defeatism and inertia that has trapped generations of children in second-rate schools," Duncan said.
Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia applied during the second round of the competition. Applications were screened by a panel of peer reviewers, and finalists will travel to Washington in coming weeks to present their proposals.
The department expects 10 to 15 states will ultimately receive money, depending on whether large or small states win.
"Just as in the first round, we're going to set a very high bar because we know that real and meaningful change will only come from doing hard work and setting high expectations," Duncan said.
All finalists scored higher than 400 points out of a possible 500 points in the initial evaluation. Duncan said the average score rose by 26 points between the first and second rounds.
All the states that were finalists but did not win in the first round were finalists in the second round.
"Our performance in round one was a pretty strong hint that we would be a factor in round two," said S.C. State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex. "South Carolina is viewed as being on the cutting edge of making the changes that will make schools stronger."
In the past 18 months, 13 states have altered laws to foster the growth of charter schools, and 17 have reformed teacher evaluation systems to include student achievement, among other things.
Two states, Tennessee and Delaware, were awarded a total of $600 million in the first round.
Their applications were praised for merit pay policies that link teacher pay to student performance and for garnering the support of teachers unions. Tennessee and Delaware also have laws that are welcoming to charter schools.