– The Associated Press

ATLANTA – Federal officials Monday awarded Tennessee and Delaware $600 million in grants to improve failing schools, sending a message to other states hoping to win money: Revamp your education laws and get your districts and teachers to sign off.

They are the first two states to win the highly competitive “Race to the Top” grants, a $4.35 billion Obama administration program meant to encourage innovative programs to boost student achievement. Tennessee is getting $500 million, and Delaware will receive $100 million.

Both states were lauded for their merit pay policies that link teacher pay to student performance and their charter school laws that are welcoming to the nontraditional education models.

But they also were winners because they had every school district approve their applications, which meant that their reforms could touch every student rather than be limited to a handful of districts.

“They have demonstrated the courage, capacity and commitment to turn their ideas into practices that can improve outcomes for students,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. Tennessee and Delaware “will blaze a path for the future of education reform.”

The states also got buy-in from nearly all of their teachers unions and from every school district, a move that helped them stand out from the other 14 finalists for the unprecedented grant program.

The third- and fourth-place finishers — Georgia and Florida — both had opposition from some of their largest teachers groups.

Both the Georgia Association of Educators and the Florida Education Association released statements calling for their state leaders to get teacher input before reapplying for the next round of grants. The winners of that round will be announced in the fall.

“Labor-management collaboration and cooperation is a key ingredient,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a Washington, D.C.-based group that represents 1.4 million educators in 43 states.

Forty states and Washington, D.C., applied for the grant program, and 16 finalists were named this month. Any state can apply for the second round of grants, with applications due in June.

Maine sat out the first round of the funding competition. Education Commissioner Susan Gendron said she plans to apply for the second round.

Leaders in both Tennessee and Delaware said the grant money will help them improve high school graduation rates, raise student achievement and turn around struggling schools.

Tennessee lawmakers passed a new law during a special session in January that requires student achievement data to comprise half of each teacher’s evaluation, a key reform pushed by the Obama administration.

Lawmakers also lifted the state’s cap on the number of charter schools that can open each year and set up a statewide school district specifically for failing schools. They also got the state’s teachers and school districts to sign off on the plan.

In Delaware, school districts and teachers approved the application, which highlighted the state’s new law allowing educators to be removed from the classroom if they are rated “ineffective” for two to three years.

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