Published Online: January 20, 2010

States Change Laws in Hopes of Race to Top Edge

States across the country rushed to pass legislation ahead of the Jan. 19 deadline for the first round of Race to the Top Fund applications in hopes of boosting their chances in the federal grant competition.

But pressures from school boards and teachers’ unions, particularly with respect to charter schools, led legislators in some states to scrap measures that their governors said were necessary to earn points toward securing some of the $4 billion in federal economic-stimulus funds.

The recent spate of policymaking activity related to the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top competition included the following:

Alabama

Stiff competition is expected for the $4 billion in federal economic-stimulus grants aimed at spurring state-level education reform. Read more.

The state school board last week, approved a resolution supporting legislation to allow charter schools, a step aimed at helping the state’s application for $200 million in Race to the Top money.

All nine members of the bipartisan board, including Gov. Bob Riley, voted for the resolution encouraging the state legislature to adopt a charter school law in the 2010 session.

California

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in October signed a measure allowing teacher evaluations to be linked student performance, removing a prohibition that would have doomed the state’s chances in the competition for up to $700 million in Race to the Top money.

Earlier this month, he signed legislation allowing local school governing boards to close failing schools, convert them to charter schools, or fire a failing school’s principal and half the staff. The reform package also will allow parents with children in the worst-performing schools to send them elsewhere.

Many of the steps were opposed by teachers’ unions and other education groups. Schwarzenegger praised the two bills as landmark reforms that once seemed politically impossible.

Colorado

Even as lawmakers last week moved to deny $130 million to public schools to help tackle $1.5 billion state budget shortfall, Gov. Bill Ritter signed fast-track legislation to help the state’s chances of winning Race to the Top money. The state planned to ask for at least $300 million in its bid.

The bill, passed by the House on Friday, called for the state to better monitor the performance of public school teachers and principals. Backers say it addresses Race to the Top requirements for producing better teachers and school leaders.

Iowa

Gov. Chet Culver wasted little time in signing an education package that repeals legislation that restricts the number of charter schools allowed in Iowa, and requires the state to develop a model for intervention in underperforming schools.

Culver signed the measure, which could attract up to $175 million in federal stimulus money, just hours after the House Friday voted 56-37 to approve it. The Senate approved it earlier in the week.

Kentucky

Lawmakers axed a charter schools proposal from fast-tracked legislation intended to strengthen the state’s Race to the Top application. State Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr, R-Lexington, broke ranks with the GOP in the education committee to derail the charter school amendment. She said she feared the amendment would have delayed getting the legislation signed into law.

Massachusetts

Gov. Deval Patrick on Tuesday signed into law an education bill that aims to close a persistent achievement gap between schools in richer and poorer communities.

Patrick called it “the second chapter of Massachusetts education reform,” referring to the state’s landmark Education Reform Act of 1993.

The bill, intended to strengthen the state’s application for $250 million in Race to the Top funding, establishes “Innovation Schools,” in-district charter schools that aim to add autonomy and flexibility to school systems. It makes it easier for the state to intervene with struggling schools. It also lifts the cap on charter schools in the lowest-performing districts.

Michigan

Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed into law a series of reforms that give the state new power to close failing schools, dump bad teachers and administrators, and measure if students are moving ahead.

It allows up to 32 more charter schools to open each year but gives the state the power to close poorly performing charter schools. The legislation also would require students to stay in school until age 18, starting with the class of 2016. Students now can leave school at age 16.

New York

Gov. David Paterson and legislative leaders failed to reach a compromise by Tuesday’s Race to the Top Fund application deadline on a measure that would have expanded charter schools.

Paterson said raising the cap to 454 school charters was needed to help New York secure up to $700 million in Race to the Top funding. The state currently has 169 charter schools, with only six charters available for new ones. The current cap is 200, but charters can’t be used again for schools that close. Charter school advocates said the application, as it stands, is stronger without the legislature’s restrictions.

Tennessee

Lawmakers Friday approved education changes Gov. Phil Bredesen has said were needed to boost Tennessee’s chances in the Race to the Top competition. The Democratic governor’s proposal, which requires half of teacher evaluations to be based on student-achievement data, was approved on a 29-3 vote in the Senate and by 83-9 in the House.

“Regardless of the outcome of any competition, this is the right thing to do for our schools,” Bredesen said in a statement after the final vote.

Washington

Gov. Chris Gregoire presented a long list of education reforms she wants the legislature to approve, including a plan to put experienced teachers back on probation after several years of poor evaluations. But her state is one of several electing to apply for the second round of applications, due this June, while sitting out the first round.

The plan also includes extending the probationary period of teachers; approving the new school accountability plan from the state board of education; establishing the first state evaluation criteria for principals; adding new ways to become a teacher; and creating a plan to pay teachers more for innovation, improving achievement gaps, or developing science and technology programs.

Vol. 29, Issue 19

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