The Obama administration on Nov. 12 is opening its competition for states to receive $5 billion in ‘Race to the Top’ education funding, but states have been jockeying for the new stimulus money even before the contest begins.

The grants will fund ideas that advance the administration’s education reform goals, such as easing the rules for charter schools or judging teachers based on student test scores. Applications are due in January, and the first round of grants will go out in April.

Fewer than half the states are likely to win the money, and several already have rewritten their education laws and cut deals with unions to boost their chances.

“States have been doing some things to get in the ballpark,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in an interview with an eSchool News wire service. “Now states have to think about how they win. We’re going to reward excellence here.”

President Barack Obama’s agenda is controversial. National teachers’ unions, typically Democratic allies, have chastised him for relying too heavily on test scores and charter schools when the administration first proposed rules for the competition.

Their criticism is tempered now. “The department worked really hard to find the right balance,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers.

Unions had argued that student achievement is much more than a score on a standardized test, in part because only about one-third of teachers teach subjects and grades that are actually tested.

In response, the Education Department changed the rules for the competition to say that teachers and principals must be judged on several different measures of student achievement, but test scores should play a significant role.

“I’m disappointed there’s still a lot of focus on test scores tied to individual teachers,” said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association. “But I think as time moves forward, we’ll have opportunities to work on that. I think there’s more flexibility than there was before.”

He added: “I feel good that they opened the door a little. They didn’t open it far enough, but at least it’s open, and I appreciate that.”

Although the unions feel better about the competition, plenty of criticism remains. Some education groups say the rules don’t go far enough or miss the mark.

Saying test scores are “significant” leaves too much to interpretation, said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit think tank.

“I think you’ve got the right intentions, and you’ve got some positive movement,” Allen said. “But unless you’re willing to be strict and firm about your expectations and leave nothing up to interpretation, a lot of people will get money without having done very much.”