Published Online: May 5, 2010

Alaska Opts Out of Race to the Top

While many states have accepted an educational reform challenge in the federal Race to the Top program, Alaska is watching from the sidelines.

Applications in a second round of bidding to the U.S. Department of Education are due June 1.

Alaska could compete for up to $75 million in grants, but Education Commissioner Larry LeDoux said the state will continue to forgo competing for the grants.

The grant structure rewards extensive education planning and policy changes. LeDoux says that means Alaska must give up some sovereignty to an inflexible program calling for too much change, too fast.

"Alaska has the right to be suspicious of an initiative where we hand over authority," he said, especially after the state's experience with the federal No Child Left Behind Act. That law requires states to use standardized testing to measure math and reading ability and establish consequences and improvement plans for schools that fail to meet annual, escalating testing goals. For the 2008-2009 school year, 224 of 505 Alaska schools failed to meet the goals.

It was a bad fit for Alaska because it was topdown, rigid and urban-centric, LeDoux said, characteristics he also sees in Race to the Top. Meanwhile, Alaska has its own education reforms under way.

"I don't disagree with what they're trying to do, it's just how we get there," LeDoux said.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, has urged Republican Gov. Sean Parnell to apply and pursue the reforms.

"Alaska must capitalize on every opportunity to bring resources to bear to produce young Alaskans fully prepared to meet the rapidly changing challenges of the global economy," he told the state Legislature in a March address.

But just applying for Race to the Top requires a significant commitment. Bids for a grant facilitator to help with the first round of applications — winners were announced in March — came back with a $300,000 price tag. Of the 40 states that applied, only Delaware and Tennessee received awards.

Kansas and Indiana have already announced they won't try again.

Folded into the Race to the Top program is a push for national education standards. States can earn points on their grant applications by adopting or taking steps to adopt the standards, which were written by education experts with states' input and oversight from the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Alaska joined Texas last year in declining an invitation to participate, though LeDoux says they've tracked the evolution of the standards and compared each draft with Alaska's as part of a state review and rewrite in progress. Some of the national standards may end up in Alaska's, LeDoux said.

The national standards are part of a push to establish a common baseline for benchmarking American schools and students with the world. The push has roots with the Washington, D.C., education policy nonprofit Achieve Inc. The draft standards are out and expected to be finalized this spring.

Dane Linn, director of education with the governors association, said the association wants all states to voluntarily adopt the standards, but that pegging Race to the Top money to the standards was the Obama administration's idea, not that of the authors.

"We prefer no strings were attached," Linn said.

The education standards are a set of knowledge- and skill-based goals and expectations for students at each grade level. Regardless of what standards Alaska follows, school districts are still responsible for developing their own curriculums and teachers their own lesson plans.

For example, one of the national standards says second-graders should be able to ask and answer basic questions about key details and events in a text. It would still be up to state and local school officials to decide if that text will be "Charlotte's Web," ''White Fang" or something else.

Race to the Top is backed by $4.35 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, last year's federal stimulus package. Federal policymakers are discussing budgeting $1.35 billion for a possible third round, said U.S. Department of Education spokesman Justin Hamilton.

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