California was named a finalist Tuesday in the second round of the federal "Race to the Top" school reform grant competition, giving the state a shot at winning as much as $700 million.
California was among 18 states and the District of Columbia on the list of finalists announced by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. In all, 35 states and the District of Columbia applied for $3.4 billion in grants.
The Race to the Top program, created by last year's federal economic stimulus legislation, rewards ambitious reforms aimed at improving struggling schools and closing the achievement gap.
Teams representing the finalists will travel to Washington in coming weeks to present their proposals. The winners will be announced in September.
In the first round of competition, just two states -- Tennessee and Delaware -- were awarded a total of $600 million.
California placed 27th among 41 states that submitted first-round applications, even though state lawmakers approved a contentious package of school reform measures designed to make the state more competitive.
For the second round, the state formed a working group of seven superintendents representing some of California's biggest school districts to help write a more detailed application.
The plan calls for placing effective teachers and principals in low-performing schools, revamping state education standards, expanding the use of data to improve academic achievement and requiring teacher and principal evaluations to be based in part on student performance.
More than 100 school districts and more than 200 charter schools, representing more than 1.7 million of California's 6.3 million public school students, signed on to the plan.
California Education Secretary Bonnie Reiss said the schools and districts that joined the application are prepared to move forward with the plan even if the state doesn't win the federal money.
"We're going to fight and defend our application as best we can," she said in an interview. "But these reforms are too important for the students of California for us to not fight for the reforms even if we don't get the grants."
But the California Teachers Association, which did not participate in writing the state's application, does not believe it's the right time to be pushing many of the proposed policies when the state has slashed education funding, prompting layoffs of thousands of teachers and other school employees, CTA President David Sanchez said.
"We believe education is a right, not a race," he said. "It's unfortunate that the administration wants to create a situation where we have winners and losers. We believe we should be providing funding for all students in all schools, not a select few."