DALLAS (AP) — Gov. Rick Perry had called it “foolish and irresponsible” for Texas to apply for funds from the Obama administration’s signature education initiative. He feared Race to the Top funding would come with too many federal mandates on how to run classrooms in his state.

Virginia Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell also pledged not to apply, and education officials in Alaska, North Dakota and Vermont balked, too. That helped lead the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules this year: Let individual school districts and charter schools — not state leaders — choose to participate.

For the first time, schools even in fiercely conservative states were able to vie for federal money under the initiative that had previously awarded nearly $5 billion in statewide grants to 18 states and the District of Columbia.

And for the first time, school leaders in Texas overwhelmingly showed Perry they don’t share their governor’s disdain for federal money — especially after the state slashed $5.4 billion in education funding last year.

Texas led the nation with 117 applications to Race to the Top this year, with two Texas charter-school networks among the 55 districts nationwide chosen this week to share nearly $400 million in federal grants over four years.

“Evidently the governor was misspeaking when he stood up and said so many districts across the state wouldn’t be interested,” said Dwaine Augustine, assistant superintendent for research and evaluation for Beaumont Independent School District, which sought funding but was not selected.

The widespread interest from Texas was just what President Barack Obama had intended when he singled out the Lone Star State in a 2010 speech, saying the program should allow applications directly from school districts “whose reform efforts are being stymied by state-decision makers.”

There was less enthusiasm in other states that previously skipped Race to the Top. North Dakota and Vermont didn’t have any applicants, Alaska had three and Virginia had 24. None of those won grants.

First announced in 2009, Race to the Top encourages states to find innovative ways to further learning, increase access to effective teachers and improve academic standards. It has had three incarnations, including grants to states, grants geared toward early-learning programs, and now funding awarded directly to school districts.

Liz Utrup, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said the program “has spurred momentous education reform on the state-level … and now on the local level.”

Utrup said the department hopes to continue allowing individual school districts apply directly under future incarnations of Race to the Top, but that details won’t be worked out until funding has been approved by Congress.

Texas stood to win as much as $700 million — about $140 per public-school student — when Perry pulled it out of the Race to the Top state competition in 2010. The governor, who made bashing the federal government a centerpiece of his unsuccessful run for president, hasn’t changed his position since.

Washington “has refused to accept the fact that Texas has no interest and no need to subscribe to its misguided, one-size-fits-all policies,” said Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier. She said Perry remains concerned that schools that win the grants “will be saddled with additional burdens required by the federal government on top of having to continue adhering to state education standards.”

School districts receiving the funds were required to create systems to evaluate their teachers, principals and superintendents and must have at least 40 percent of participating students come from low-income families. Applicants were also encouraged to build educational programs using data-based and digital tools.

The 372 districts applying nationwide sought money for everything from tablet computers to establishing pay-for-performance systems for teachers.

Texas school districts saw a chance to make up for some of the funding cuts the state Legislature implemented last year. The state’s two-largest districts — Dallas and Houston — applied, and though they didn’t win, both say they’d be interested in doing so again.

Texas winners were Harmony Public Schools and IDEA Public Schools. Harmony, which has campuses in Houston, Austin and across the state, won approximately $30 million to work toward further personal classroom instruction so that every student has customized support.

IDEA has campuses in the Rio Grande Valley, as well as Central Texas. It will get about $29 million for increasing teacher effectiveness and developing data analysis to better track student progress.

Dallas Independent School District made a list of 61 Race to the Top finalists, but will have to wait until next time for another chance at applying. Officials were seeking about $30 million to help a district where 87 percent of students come from economically disadvantaged homes.

Part of the grant would have gone to Lincoln High School, where officials are especially proud of the engineering academy. In a poverty-stricken corner of South Dallas, the academy lets students take four years of advanced courses and earn college credit upon graduation. On a recent morning, students were carefully piecing together models with gears and pulleys to meet a specific engineering design.

Junior Rashad Henderson was part of a group of three boys who was the first to build a contraption that met all of the requirements. All three said they now want to pursue careers in engineering.

“It can get hard,” said Henderson, 16, “but you just keep pushing.”

Instructor Darren Carollo said some students are so motivated that he’s had a problem lately with them skipping other classes to work on their models.

“They show up and I have to say, `Now where are you supposed to be?”‘ Carollo said, beaming. “That’s never happened in 20 years of teaching.”

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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