JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight: overhauling the nation's schools.
A report today says, most states will apply for their share of federal stimulus money tied to education reform.
The NewsHour's special correspondent for education, John Merrow, offers some historical context on the latest reform efforts.
U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There we go. It's done.
JOHN MERROW: The stimulus bill the president signed in February included a new $4.3 billion fund for public schools.
BARACK OBAMA: This is one of the largest investments in education reform in American history. And rather than divvying it up and handing it out, we are letting states and school districts compete for it.
JOHN MERROW: This is where the money will be handed out, at the U.S. Department of Education. It sets the rules for what it's calling the Race to the Top.
Arne Duncan is the new secretary of education.
ARNE DUNCAN: Really, what I'm trying to do, can we make the Department of Education not the driver of compliance, not the driver of bureaucracy, but the engine of innovation?
JOHN MERROW: The race is a one-of-a-kind competition among states for the best plan to overhaul schools. Short of cash on their own, states are lining up for a shot at the money.
Kati Haycock is a school reform advocate for the Education Trust.
KATI HAYCOCK: Even the states that, arguably, don't have much of a track record of improvement, there are groups of people, educators, businesspeople, foundation people and others, coming together to say, how can we qualify for these dollars?
JOHN MERROW: To qualify, states must promise to raise standards, track student performance and tie that to teacher pay, turn around the lowest-performing schools, mainly by opening charters, and more.
The Race to the Top is very different from previous federal efforts to improve K-12 education. In fact, for most of our history, the federal government left public education alone. That changed in 1957. The trigger was a Russian rocket.
NEWSREEL NARRATOR: Today, a new moon is in the sky.
JOHN MERROW: Sputnik, the first satellite, threatened the nation's security. America needed more scientists and engineers to catch up to the Soviets. President Eisenhower responded by pouring money into education.
DIANE RAVITCH, historian: There was a national uproar about the failures of our schools.
JOHN MERROW: Historian Diane Ravitch was an assistant secretary of education under the first President Bush.
DIANE RAVITCH: A lot of very bright kids got pulled in -- aside by their teachers and their principals and told, you are going to take physics, and you will study a foreign language.
JOHN MERROW: Federal involvement grew from there, but, by 1964, the cause had changed. First, it was civil rights, then poverty.
LYNDON BAINES JOHNSON, former president, United States: For so long as man has lived on this earth, poverty has been his curse.
JOHN MERROW: President Johnson's war on poverty sent millions of dollars to school programs serving disadvantaged students. From there, the targeting of funds at groups of students continued, in 1968, bilingual students, in 1975, students with disabilities.
And to administer these programs, in 1980, President Carter and the Congress created the U.S. Department of Education. But, while the federal profile had increased, states and localities still paid over 90 percent of the costs of running schools. That kept Washington at a distance.
Then, in 1983, during the Reagan administration, came a commission report called "A Nation At Risk."
RONALD REAGAN, former president, United States: We found that our educational system is in the grip of a crisis caused by low standards, lack of purpose, ineffective use of resources, and a failure to challenge students to push performance to the boundaries of individual ability, and that is, to strive for excellence.
JOHN MERROW: But, to Reagan, the solution had always been less federal involvement. He sought to close the Department of Education, but Congress kept it.
Move ahead to 1989. President George H.W. Bush called the first ever National Education Summit. It produced a set of goals, but no change in the federal stance.
GEORGE H.W. BUSH, former president, United States: There are real problems right now in our educational system, but I firmly believe that the key will be found at the state and local levels.
JOHN MERROW: It took a new president to bring the federal role forward.
BILL CLINTON, former president,United States: Tonight, I issue a challenge to the nation. Every state should adopt high national standards, and, by 1999, every state should test every fourth-grader in reading and every eighth-grader in math to make sure these standards are met.
JOHN MERROW: That didn't happen on Clinton's watch, but the next president upped the ante.
GEORGE W. BUSH, former president, United States: The fundamental principle of this bill is that every child can learn, we expect every child to learn, and you must show us whether or not every child is learning.
JOHN MERROW: The new law, called No Child Left Behind, introduced mandatory testing and sanctions for poor performance. But the threat of penalties has not produced the improvement Washington wanted.
WOMAN: We will stretch and slide to read words. I will show you how.
DIANE RAVITCH: States have been dumbing their tests down and dumbing their standards down. I mean, even some of our highest-scoring, best states are way overstating what percent of the kids are proficient.
JOHN MERROW: Critics say No Child Left Behind produced a race to the bottom. Now we have a Race to the Top and a secretary of education with $4.35 billion he can spend on whatever education programs he wants.
That's more discretionary money than all his predecessors combined.
ARNE DUNCAN: I want to take to scale what is really working and take those package of things together to say, if we do all these things, we can get dramatically better. If we have the best and brightest teachers where we need them, if we have great principals, if we're working with great nonprofits, if we have common high standards, and great assessments, and then great data systems behind that, if we do these things well, we can make a huge difference in our students' lives.
JOHN MERROW: But, like tougher standards and more tests, most of these ideas have been tried before.
DIANE RAVITCH: I would like to see the secretary point to a district where they have done -- some district that has done what he recommends and where you can say, now, there's a district that's turned around.
JOHN MERROW: Kati Haycock sees things differently.
KATI HAYCOCK: What I think most state people will tell you, these are things we knew we needed to do, these are things we wanted to do, but the politics of doing them are so hard, it was going to take us a decade. And now it's going to take six months.
JOHN MERROW: The Race to the Top is already having an impact. Rules of the competition have led 10 states to revise their education laws, and more changes are on the way. States must turn in their applications by mid-January. Winners will be announced in the spring.
JIM LEHRER: You can listen to more from the interviews with Diane Ravitch and Kati Haycock online. Just follow a link from NewsHour.PBS.org to the Learning Matters Web site.