The Obama administration is expanding its signature education program with a new round of competition for a pool of grants worth $400 million, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced on Tuesday.

Launched in 2009 as a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Race to the Top initiative has made nearly $5 billion in aid available to states that offered plans to enact the administration's educational priorities, including offering more charter schools, crafting policies to turn around failing schools, and creating college readiness standards. A push to institute better ways to evaluate teachers, and then linking those assessments to hiring and firing decisions, has proved to be the most controversial and most difficult priority to implement.

The new program will apply to school districts with more than 2,500 students, and in which at least 40 percent of those students are eligible for free or reduced price lunches, which is a basic metric for measuring how many students in a given district are rom low-income homes.

Winning districts will receive grants worth between $15 million and $25 million, depending on their size, and districts that have fewer than 2,500 students can band together and apply as consortiums.

According to a Department of Education draft of the rules governing the competition, which will be finalized after a public input period ends in June, districts will be encouraged to target individual student achievement with programs that allow students significantly more freedom to study and advance at their own pace.

As importantly, they will create opportunities for students to identify and pursue areas of personal passion -- all of this occurring in the context of ensuring that each student demonstrates mastery in critical areas identified in college -- and career-ready standards, the draft read.

In a speech at the Department of Education's headquarters in Washington, Secretary Duncan acknowledged that personalized education is a very ambitious goal but said the grant program would spur districts to expand already effective methods that include teachers dividing their time between lectures and one-on-one interactions with students, having parents play a more prominent role and deploying teachers-in-training to classrooms.

This aims squarely at the classroom and the all-important relation amongst teachers and their students, Duncan said. We must take classroom learning beyond a one-size-fits-all model and bring it into the 21st century.

The Obama administration's other major education initiative has involved granting states relief from a provision of No Child Left Behind, the largely discredited education overhaul signed into law by President Bush in 2001, which required schools to register 100 percent proficiency on math and science exams or face harsh penalties. That mandate was widely seen as unrealistic, and Obama cited congressional inaction in offering states waivers from the requirement.

As with Race to the Top, states could only obtain a waiver if they pursued certain reforms prized by the administration, such as teacher evaluations and new plans to address failing schools. Twenty-six states have applied for exemptions so far.