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Delaware and Tennessee beat out 38 other states and the District of Columbia to win a share of $4 billion in federal education grants, convincing the Obama administration that they have bold plans for overhauling their public school systems.

Delaware is to be awarded about $100 million and Tennessee about $500 million.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the two states had won because they had written new laws to support their policies and had marshaled overwhelming statewide support from teachers, school districts and business leaders for comprehensive school improvement plans.

“We got 100 percent sign-on,” said Gov. Jack Markell of Delaware, a Democrat.

By announcing only two winners in the first round, Duncan held to his vow that only a small number of states with extremely ambitious plans would prevail in the Race to the Top competition, which aims to promote innovation by rewarding a few states for exemplary progress in areas that President Barack Obama considers crucial to education reform.

Georgia and Florida came in third and fourth, but won no money.

The president’s goals include expanding charter schools, reworking teacher evaluation systems, improving states’ student-data tracking systems and turning around the lowest-performing schools.

One highlight of Delaware’s proposal was a new state law that allows teachers rated as “ineffective” for three years to be removed from the classroom, even if they have tenure, the department said.

Tennessee passed a law that will allow the state to intervene in failing schools and will permit student academic growth to be used in educator evaluations.

Forty states and the District of Columbia submitted proposals for the competition in January, more than had been originally expected, in part because plunging tax revenues in the recession have left states hungry for federal money.

New York came in 15th of the 16 finalists. New York’s naming as a finalist had been a surprise because the Legislature did not eliminate caps on the number of charter schools, despite having been pushed to do so by both Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York and Gov. David A. Paterson.

Duncan had said political influence would play no part in the competition. But by choosing two states with Democratic governors, and by eliminating several strong contenders with Republican governors, the administration may face grumbling.

Andy Smarick, a Republican who served in the White House and in the Department of Education under President George W. Bush, said, “I don’t think that political influence was a primary determinant here, but it could have had a secondary effect.”

Obama has requested an additional $1.3 billion to extend the competition into a third round next year.