Published Online: July 9, 2009
Published in Print: July 15, 2009, as Racing for an Early Edge

Racing for an Early Edge

States jockey for position as the U.S. Education Department readies billions of dollars in ‘Race to the Top’ awards—the stimulus program’s grand prize.

Even before they’ve finished spending their first block of federal stimulus aid, states are getting a head start in a national “race to the top” for better public education, without even knowing rules to the game.

With up to $4.35 billion in competitive grants for education reform at stake, the most aggressive states are putting together strategic grant-bidding teams, revamping their laws, and parsing speeches by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for clues to what might give them an edge.

The Race to the Top Fund is a small slice of the nearly $100 billion aimed at education in the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that Congress approved in February. But in tough budget times, states are eyeing money from the fund as the stimulus measure’s grand prize. Winning one of the grants will give a state bragging rights—and a chance to advance key education improvement efforts through stimulus funding, which in many cases is being used mainly to plug budget holes.

Later this month, the federal Department of Education is expected to reveal the metrics by which states will be measured in the Race to the Top competition. Already, Mr. Duncan has spent the past couple of months dropping not-so-subtle hints about what he’s looking for—and what states should avoid if they hope to win a grant.

The secretary has singled out states for championing, or violating, tenets of education reform embraced by the Obama administration: turning around low-performing schools (and expanding charter schools), improving teacher quality, beefing up state data systems, and enacting common academic standards. Those are the four “assurances” spelled out in the stimulus law.

Risk Factors

Already at a competitive disadvantage, Mr. Duncan has said, are the 11 states without charter schools, and the 23 states (plus the District of Columbia) that have charter school laws but place caps on the expansion of that sector. ("Obama Team's Advocacy Boosts Charter Momentum," June 17, 2009.)

Surveying the Field

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been using the $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund as leverage to get states to adopt certain policy measures. So far, the landscape is mixed.

Illinois
Mr. Duncan visited his home state in April to urge legislators to lift their cap on charter schools; two months later, the Illinois legislature expanded the cap by doubling the number of allowed charter schools to 120.

Indiana
Secretary Duncan singled out Indiana as taking a step backwards in the Race to the Top as lawmakers there debated whether to place a new cap on the expansion of charter schools. But lawmakers reversed course and voted down a new cap.

Rhode Island
The legislature voted to restore $1.5 million in funding to two charter schools after a heated battle between Democrats and Republicans that sparked comments from Mr. Duncan, who said the state needed to restore the funding to remain competitive for the grants.

Pennsylvania
Lawmakers were debating whether to cut K-12 education funding while leaving much of the state’s rainy-day fund intact, a move that sparked a letter from the secretary to policymakers urging them to reconsider.

Tennessee
The state legislature last month passed a new law expanding the pool of students who can attend charter schools, a move that Mr. Duncan had urged.

Colorado
Many policy experts say Colorado, with its education-reform-oriented governor and pro-charter-school legislation, is among the best-positioned to win some of the money. Gov. Bill Ritter has put his lieutenant governor in charge of that effort, and dedicated $10 million in stimulus funds for programs to help put the state in an even better position.

California
State law bars the use of data that connect individual teachers to students in decisions about teacher evaluations. Secretary Duncan has chastised California lawmakers for this “firewall” in light of Race to the Top.

Fiscal and data-quality issues may also come into play: States such as Texas that used stimulus funding to pay for K-12 education while not touching their rainy-day funds will likely be behind in the race; Pennsylvania is debating doing the same thing. Also at a disadvantage are states such as California that put barriers in state law that make it harder to use data that link individual teachers to individual students’ academic performance.

And the four states—Alaska, Missouri, South Carolina, and Texas—that haven’t signed on to a new effort to create common, national academic standards may not fare well either. ("46 States Agree to Common Academic Standards Effort," June 10, 2009.)

In zeroing in on a few select areas of policy—such as lifting caps on the number of charter schools—and using the potential of $4.35 billion in grants as leverage, Secretary Duncan is giving state proponents political ammunition to make select, tangible changes, education observers say.

“It’s remarkable that before he’s even spent a nickel, he’s sparked a national conversation,” said Andrew J. Rotherham, the co-founder of the Washington-based think tank Education Sector.

He said that Mr. Duncan and the Education Department will face pressure from Capitol Hill, states, and interest groups to dispense the money in certain ways, or to spread it out among most states.

“If they can hold the line,” he said of department leaders, “[the Race to the Top grants] can actually be catalytic.”

But there are risks, too. Placing all the emphasis on particular policy approaches may mean oversimplifying complex issues, others warn.

For example, lifting the cap on the number of charters is only one indicator of a state’s willingness to encourage those largely independent public schools.

“This is distracting from the bigger issues that face charter schools,” said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington-based pro-charter organization. “You can have no cap on a lousy charter school law; there are more important elements.” She cites factors such as how many different entities can authorize charters, and how the schools are funded.

And the lack of educator training is a bigger issue for districts in being able to use data to improve student achievement than legal or technical barriers, said Paige Kowalski, a senior associate at the Austin, Texas-based Data Quality Campaign.

Such points of contention add to the eagerness of education advocates, policymakers, and state officials for formal guidance on the Race to the Top Fund, which includes $350 million Mr. Duncan has set aside for states to develop common assessments. He’s tapped Joanne S. Weiss, a former NewSchools Venture Fund executive, to run the program. Among the issues still to be resolved:

•Whether the Education Department will reward states that have already made a lot of progress in improving education, or those with the biggest potential;

Joanne S. Weiss

Title: Director, Race to the Top Fund

Job description: Will oversee the development and implementation of $4.35 billion in competitive “Race to the Top” grants that will be awarded to states, beginning in the fall. Reports to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Work history: Former chief operating officer of NewSchools Venture Fund for nearly eight years, where she focused on investment strategy and management assistance to its portfolio of ventures, led its research agenda, and oversaw the organization’s operations. Former CEO of Claria Corp., an e-services recruiting firm that helps emerging-growth companies build their teams quickly and well. Spent the prior 20 years in the design, development, and marketing of technology-based products and services for education for various companies.

Education: Degree in biochemistry from Princeton University

•Given the focus on turning around low-performing schools, whether the most populous states, with big pockets of poverty and struggling schools, will be favored over smaller states; and

•How widely the grants will be distributed, with just a few states getting sizable chunks of money or with awards being spread around to many states.

“The department is going to have to get very specific,” said Andy Smarick, a former department official under Secretary Margaret Spellings, Mr. Duncan’s predecessor, and an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. For example, he said, “we know they care about charter school caps, but how much is good enough?”

Naming Names

While answers to such questions remain a work-in-progress at the department, Secretary Duncan has singled out some states for falling short in areas he considers to be crucial.

Indiana and Maine, for example, were identified last month in an official statement as being unfriendly to charter schools. (Maine doesn’t have them, and Indiana considered, but eventually rejected, a new cap to halt expansion.)

California, New York, and Wisconsin were cited in a June speech by Mr. Duncan for putting a “firewall” between student and teacher data—even though it’s unclear whether their state laws go that far.

Pennsylvania lawmakers got a letter from Mr. Duncan last month, when the state was considering cutting K-12 school aid and filling the hole with federal education stimulus money, while leaving a $750 million rainy-day surplus fund intact. The budget was in flux earlier this month.

And Mr. Duncan’s home state of Illinois earned special scrutiny in April as the first state he called on to do better, by lifting its charter-school cap and raising academic standards.

Education advocates in Illinois note that two months after Mr. Duncan’s visit, Illinois lawmakers doubled the cap on the number of charter schools, to 120.

“That gave those negotiations a kick in the pants,” said Robin Stearns, the executive director of Advance Illinois, a school reform group launched in November 2008 and led by former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, and former U.S. Secretary of Commerce William Daley, a Democrat.

The Weigh-In

Some states may be at a competitive disadvantage when vying for $4.35 billion in Race to the Top grants. Factors that may hurt states’ chances of winning a grant include having caps on charter school growth, not embracing rigorous, common state standards, and not linking individual teachers to their students’ performance.

On Charters

39 states and the District of Columbia have charter school laws.

States without charter laws:
Alabama, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Washington, and West Virginia

23 states plus the District of Columbia have charter laws that place caps on the number of such schools.

States with the most restrictive caps:
Iowa, Connecticut, and Ohio

On student and teacher data

29 states’ data systems cannot match teachers to students.

3 states have been singled out for this by Mr. Duncan:
California, New York, and Wisconsin

On common standards

46 states have signed on to craft common academic standards in language arts and math.

4 states have not:
Texas, South Carolina, Alaska, and Missouri

The group’s platform includes raising the state’s academic standards, linking teacher and principal evaluations to student outcomes, and spurring innovation in school districts, all of which are priorities for Mr. Duncan.

“It’s fair to say this is game-changing for us,” Ms. Stearns said of the Race to the Top competition. “It’s compressed the time frame and added some urgency, because the advantage goes to the states with momentum.”

Similarly, in late spring, Mr. Duncan called Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, to urge him to retool what was one of the nation’s most restrictive charter-school caps; in June, the legislature approved expanding the pool of students eligible to attend charter schools.

“We’ve passed a bill to show our willingness in this area,” said Tennessee Commissioner of Education Tim Webb. “I think the interest was there. I don’t think it would have been done as expeditiously” without Mr. Duncan’s advocacy.

Mr. Webb said he now plans to focus his state’s Race to the Top efforts on teacher incentives and maximizing the state’s existing data system.

In Indiana, lawmakers ended a special session last month by not capping the expansion of charter schools. And the education department there was successful in getting lawmakers to remove a restriction in state law that said student test scores could not be used for teacher evaluations, said department spokesman Cam Savage.

Angling for Grants

With so many states feeling financial pain in a time of recession, it makes sense that they’d try to retool education laws and policies to qualify for the federal money, said Michael J. Petrilli, the vice president for national programs and policy for the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

“No politician wants to be accused of leaving free money on the table,” said Mr. Petrilli, who was in the U.S. Department of Education during President George W. Bush’s administration.

To help states improve their chances of receiving some of the Race to the Top money, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is planning to award grants that can be used for the application process. Florida and Tennessee are among those in line. But details are sketchy: Chris Williams, a spokesman for the Seattle-based foundation, said he couldn’t comment on potential grants.

Meanwhile, education observers name a few states as early favorites for the federal Race the Top awards. Chief among them: Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, and Louisiana.

Massachusetts has been known for its tough standards and assessment system, and its enviable student-performance results, while Louisiana has made charter schools a big part of the education improvement push in New Orleans.

Colorado beefed up its academic standards and accountability law in 2008, has strong charter school legislation, an active P-20 Council linking education from preschool through graduate study, and districts with teacher merit-pay systems.

The state also has a particularly sophisticated grant strategy. Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, a Democrat, is in charge of the Race to the Top “bid team,” which includes committees of business, community, and education volunteers who are focused on the four assurances that have become priorities for Mr. Duncan.

Ms. O’Brien and her crew are also trying to read the federal Education Department’s tea leaves. “We’ve been following every single speech on education. We analyze them like literary critics,” she said.

Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat, also has set aside $10 million from Colorado’s share of the stimulus package’s State Fiscal Stabilization Fund to put into programs to show federal officials that Colorado is serious about improving education. Such efforts include expanding the state’s data system, funding more teachers from the national Teach For America program, and letting more districts experiment with alternative-compensation systems for teachers.

“We’re forging ahead with our agenda anyway, even if we don’t get the money,” said Ms. O’Brien.

That’s a refrain being heard in Florida, where Commissioner of Education Eric J. Smith said the competition has prompted serious conversations about the next step in education reform among educators, the governor, and legislators.

Florida is considered a prime contender for Race to the Top funds because of its sophisticated and multilayered data system, an accountability system that was among the first in the country, and large urban and student populations. ("Florida Schools Steer by Numbers," June 11, 2009.)

Mr. Smith said there’s no secret grant strategy.

“We’re not trying to read anyone’s mind,” he said. “We’re pushing Florida’s agenda.” And, he added, that just happens to largely coincide with Mr. Duncan’s agenda.

Vol. 28, Issue 36, Pages 22-23

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