COLUMBIA, S.C. -- A dozen South Carolina school districts have told the U.S. Department of Education they plan to apply for a piece of $400 million in grants to be doled out nationwide.

The latest round of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top education innovation grants calls for districts to apply directly — the only way South Carolina schools could get a chunk.

Republican state Superintendent Mick Zais has refused since his 2010 campaign to take federal stimulus money or participate in Race to the Top. He argues the amounts are meager when looking at all money going to schools and creates an unfunded mandate when the grant runs out in four years.

The Obama administration has already awarded more than $4 billion to 18 states and the District of Columbia through the competition.

South Carolina school district officials say they’re excited about the opportunity to win money for plans tailored to their needs.

“We can write an application that in a very, very direct way meets the needs of our own district and students,” said Cynthia Wilson, superintendent of Orangeburg 5 schools.

Fifteen percent of South Carolina’s school districts met an Aug. 30 deadline for submitting an intent-to-apply form.

They are among nearly 900 districts nationwide that filled out the online form, according to a release from the federal agency. It expects to award 15 to 25 districts four-year grants ranging from $5 million to $40 million, depending on their size.

South Carolina’s districts are seeking between $5 million and $30 million.

The precise number of districts seeking money is unknown. At least two on South Carolina’s list — Orangeburg 4 and Laurens 55 — represent a consortium of rural districts applying together, as the federal guidelines allow. At least one — Sumter County — has since decided against applying, citing the massive amount of work needed to meet the Oct. 30 deadline. Lexington 1 and Dorchester 2 officials are undecided on whether to proceed.

Other districts on the list include Charleston, Georgetown, Lancaster and Marlboro counties, Hampton 1, and Spartanburg 6.

But districts that didn’t meet the intent-to-apply deadline can still apply. Winners will be announced in December.

“It’s a long shot, but I think we have great districts in the state that do great work,” said Betsy Carpentier, a consultant working with Laurens 55, Laurens 56 and Saluda County on their joint application. “This can propel them into personalized learning.”

The guidelines require applicants to design a personalized learning environment that uses data-based and digital tools to meet the needs of individual students.

“It’s about creating a new image for what a classroom or school should look like,” Wilson said.

The use of technology plays a key role in the contest. For rural districts, the grant could fund the infrastructure needed to provide high-speed Internet access, as well as the personal computer devices.

Charleston County Superintendent Nancy McGinley said her district wants to use the grant process to accelerate efforts on individualized learning.

With technology, “learning can occur anytime — anywhere. The traditional notion of teaching and learning must be expanded to capitalize on the new learning opportunities that exist in the world today and for the 21st century working environment our students will enter,” she said.

The approach also changes the role of teachers, to support and coach students’ learning, rather than being the sole conduit, she said.

In order to qualify for the grants, at least 40 percent of participating students must come from low-income families. Applications must represent more than 2,000 students. The districts also must assure that they will use teacher, principal and superintendent evaluation systems by the 2014-15 school year and be able to provide instructors with data on student growth.

While Zais’ permission isn’t needed, the guidelines require districts to give him and their local mayors 10 days to review their applications and respond. Applications must then explain whether the districts have incorporated any of their suggestions.

Zais intends to review and comment on any Race to the Top application. He will be looking for how districts intend to evaluate teachers and sustain programs after the grants end, said his spokesman Jay Ragley.

Last year, Zais refused to apply for South Carolina’s share of Race to the Top money set aside for finalists in previous rounds, sought under former Democratic Superintendent Jim Rex. Ragley notes that, for a subsequent round, South Carolina wasn’t eligible because of recession-era state cuts to colleges. For the same reason, South Carolina was ineligible for its $144 million share of federal bailout money specifically to save teaching jobs, which was distributed to other states.

But South Carolina’s eligibility mattered little to the end result. Zais has repeatedly said that even if South Carolina had been eligible, he would have refused to seek the money. Education groups and civil rights leaders who have protested Zais’ stance note Zais could have pushed for a remedy, as Texas successfully did.