Published Online: November 16, 2009
Published in Print: November 18, 2009, as Starting Gun Sounds for 'Race to the Top'

Rules Set for $4 Billion Race to Top Contest

Final Rules Give States Detailed Map in Quest for $4 Billion in Education Stimulus Aid

For a good shot at $4 billion in grants from the federal Race to the Top Fund, states will need to make a persuasive case for their education reform agendas, demonstrate significant buy-in from local school districts, and devise plans to evaluate teachers and principals based on student performance, according to final regulations released last week by the U.S. Department of Education.

Those three factors will rank as the most important to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his staff as they weigh states’ applications based on more than 30 criteriaRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader, including how friendly their charter school climates are and how they use data to improve instruction.

At stake for states is a slice of the biggest single discretionary pool of education money in the economic-stimulus package passed by Congress in February—a $4.35 billion prize, of which $350 million has been pledged to help consortia of states develop common assessments.

A winning state’s share of what’s left will depend on its school-age population, according to nonbinding estimatesRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader provided by the department.

At the high end, the four biggest states—California, Florida, New York, and Texas—could get between $350 million and $700 million each. At the low end are the smallest student-population states, such as Delaware, which could get between $20 million and $75 million each.

Grading Scale

Applications for $4 billion in Race to the Top aid will be scored on a 500-point scale, divvied up by category.

To win funding, states will have to do much more than lift their charter school caps or remove data firewalls between student and teacher data, said Mr. Duncan, who pushed those two issues in recent months to get states ready for the competition.

“This is not about getting in the game, this is about winning,” he said in an interview last week. “There will be a lot more losers than winners.”

Many Revisions

The final regulations come after the department received 1,161 comments about the draft version during a 30-day comment period that ended in August. Many criticized the plan as being a one-size-fits-all approach to improving education.

The comments also included biting criticism from the national teachers’ unions, which objected to the emphasis on using student test scores in teacher-evaluation systems.

Estimated Awards

The U.S. Department of Education has given nonbinding ranges for how much a winning state’s Race to the Top grant would be, based on the state’s share of the national population of children between ages 5 and 17.

The Education Department, however, largely stuck to its original approach, giving states a clear, detailed—though slightly revised—blueprint for how to win a Race to the Top grant.

The top three criteria are “either the biggest indicators that ... you could really make a significant breakthrough, or the things we thought are the biggest levers for change,” said Joanne Weiss, the department’s Race to the Top director.

In a nod to teachers’ union concerns, the final regulations make clear that student test scores should be just one component of a teacher- or principal-evaluation system. The regulations require that such systems include multiple measures, including growth in student test scores.

“I think the department figured out a way to strike a balance between what is needed to get systemwide improvement for kids and schools, and how to measure that,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, who was generally encouraged by the final regulations.

The 3.2 million-member National Education Association toned down its criticisms this time, praising the department’s requirement for multiple measures of evaluating teachers. But NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said in a statement the union remains “disappointed that the administration continues to focus so heavily on tying students’ test scores to individual teachers.”

Overall, though, support from state and local teachers’ unions will earn a small number of points for states as they demonstrate stakeholder buy-in. And while teacher- and principal-evaluation systems must be designed with “involvement” from teachers and principals, the regulations do not define how involved they must be.

Improving teacher and principal effectiveness is the single biggest category in the 500-point grading scale, worth one-quarter of the total points. To put that in perspective, it’s more important than improving data systems and turning around the lowest-achieving schools combined.

Reform Agenda

States’ reform agendas take on a more prominent role in the final regulations.

A new category requires a state to clearly articulate its education reform agenda and prove that it has the capacity to carry it out. “It became clear that a lot of states were treating [the criteria] as a checklist. There was no big picture,” Ms. Weiss said. “Now, this is where they build their case.”

As to why the department is placing such a premium on local school district support, look no further than the statewide elections of 2010, when a large number of governors and chief state school officers will be up for election. Undoubtedly, grants will go to some states that will subsequently see a turnover in those high offices, and federal officials are concerned about continuity.

“This is not a governor’s plan, this is not a chief’s plan. We’re trying to reward systems, and systems are bigger than any one individual,” Mr. Duncan said in the interview. “You invest in the management team. This is not about investing in charismatic leaders.”

The awards will be given out in two rounds, with the first applications due in mid-January. A second round of applications, for those who didn’t apply or win the first time, will be due June 1. All awards will be made by Sept. 30, 2010.

For all the complexity of the scoring rubric, the final awards process will be relatively simple. The scores of all the applications will be ranked in order and will be funded in that order until the money is gone. Mr. Duncan, however, will have the final say. The winning and losing applications, along with their scores, will be made public.

Based on the grading scale, it’s already clear that some states will start out at a disadvantage.

Eleven states, for example, stand to lose up to 32 points each for not having a charter school law.

The elimination of charter school caps, which had been a major part of Mr. Duncan’s speeches in recent months, plays a lesser role. In the regulations, the department acknowledges that not all caps are equal, and allows for states to get some points if they don’t have caps that severely inhibit charter school growth.

Another change in the final regulations is a new requirement that states must have their applications approved for Phase 2 of the stimulus program’s State Fiscal Stabilization Fund to be eligible for a Race to the Top award.

Aid to Districts

The regulations also clarify how the money will be distributed down to the district level.

According to the stimulus law, formally known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, at least 50 percent of the funds must be directed to school districts via the formula for Title I aid for disadvantaged students. The department has made clear that states only have to send money to districts that have agreed to participate in Race to the Top reforms. States can use the other 50 percent of the money at their discretion.

Even with this ambitious education improvement competition, and $4 billion in incentive money to hand out, some education advocates had expected more from the competition.

Andy Smarick, who has been tracking the economic-stimulus package as a distinguished visiting fellow with the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute, noted that there was little emphasis in the final regulations on how states spent the first round of their State Fiscal Stabilization Fund money. He said that’s especially troubling given that Secretary Duncan told states they should spend the federal aid wisely or risk being at a competitive disadvantage for winning Race to the Top funds.

“If you don’t do national standards, you lose 40 points, but if you’ve wasted $3 billion in stimulus money, you lose 5 points,” Mr. Smarick said, referring to the scoring rubric.

Amy Wilkins, a vice president of the Washington-based Education Trust, said the department’s single-minded focus on teacher effectiveness—based largely on student test scores—leaves out a large swath of teachers: those who work in the early grades, who teach untested subjects, and who teach in high schools.

“The great promise was that Arne [Duncan] had the real opportunity for unfettered boldness,” Ms. Wilkins said, especially since the Race to the Top regulations didn’t have to be negotiated through Congress.

However, Mr. Duncan has emphasized that the department must walk a fine line between being overly prescriptive, and setting broad goals. Still, Ms. Wilkins said, the award ranges based on population, and the clear-cut scoring rubric, leave “no incentive for states to be particularly bold.”

Vol. 29, Issue 12, Pages 1,18-19

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