Special Report

$3.4 Billion Is Left in Race to Top Aid

Grants to Del., Tenn. Set Dynamic for Round 2
By Lesli A. Maxwell & Michele McNeil — April 02, 2010 7 min read
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By selecting just two states as first-round Race to the Top winners, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is leaving $3.4 billion on the table for the remaining states to vie for in round two.

Delaware and Tennessee beat out 14 other finalists last week to win the first grants awarded in the $4 billion Race to the Top Fund competition.

Mr. Duncan praised the two states, which edged out front-runners Florida and Louisiana, for mustering strong district and teachers’-union support for their plans, for having superior data systems, and for submitting comprehensive proposals that touched “every single child” statewide.

And he challenged states to compete as vigorously for round-two grants, saying there could be 10 to 15 winners. Applications are due June 1, and the awards will be made in September.

Race to the Top: Round 1

$3.4 Billion Is Left in Race to Top Aid
The Winners:
Race to Top Win Poses $100 Million Test for Delaware
Tennessee Targets Teaching With Race to Top Winnings

“We now have two states that will blaze the path for the future of education reform,” Mr. Duncan said in a conference call with reporters. In looking ahead to round two, he said, “I challenge states to put their best foot forward. We want to fund as many strong proposals as possible.”

Delaware, which was ranked No. 1 on the competition’s 500-point grading scale, will win about $100 million, while Tennessee, which came in second, will garner about $500 million, based on student population. Those states should have access to their funds within 90 days, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Georgia missed the cut by just over 10 points, coming in third, while Florida, Illinois, and South Carolina, in descending order, rounded out the top six. Forty states and the District of Columbia applied in round one of the federal competition, which is supported by economic-stimulus aid.

In Their Words

Here are highlights from judges’ comments on states’ Race to the Top applications:

“The applicant demonstrates a very strong commitment from the state’s 38 [local education agencies], with 100 percent of the LEAs signing [memorandums of understanding], with signatures from every superintendent, school board president, teachers’ union leader, and charter school leader agreeing to participate in the full scope of the work.”

“By contrast to the requested investment, student-achievement targets are modest for the gains projected at the end of the [Race to the Top] grant period. The plan does not articulate any major barriers or challenges that need to be addressed in undertaking this enormous effort. The fact that only 8 percent of union leaders endorsed the state’s application raises a concern about barriers. The application does not address how the state will move forward assertively to generate union buy-in.”

“On the state’s plan to provide effective support to teachers and principals: “This is not so much a plan as it is a listing of persons who will be used to support teachers and principals.”

“The state plan has the support of 68 percent of the LEAs, which does not touch a significant student population. Affecting 51 percent of the student population in a state that is at the low end of student performance is an insufficient goal.”

“When asked to comment on the [charter school] cap, the New York team’s response was not convincing enough to allay fears that, as a state, New York lacks the collective will to make critical changes to existing laws that act as impediments to substantive reform.”

“Though Georgia has a relatively small number of LEAs participating, those participating still serve half of the state’s student body and a significant percentage of high-needs subgroups of students. As a result, fewer points were withheld than otherwise would have been.”

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

Putting so much money up for grabs in round two “sets up the best possible dynamics for states,” said Charles Barone, the director of federal legislation for the New York City-based political action committee Democrats for Education Reform. He noted that states now have the benefit of seeing peer reviewers’ comments on the first-round proposals, which could provide a road map for winning in round two.

Beyond bragging rights for their first-round awards, announced last week, Delaware and Tennessee got a financial bonus, too: Their grants will amount to more per student than states will win in round two. Both states won grants that were larger than estimates the Education Department had provided for states of their size.

But the department is changing the rules for the second round, capping the awards at its top-of-the-line estimates, which vary by student enrollment. Florida, for example, submitted an application that asked for $1.1 billion, but if it applies in the next round, its application must be built on programs that can be funded with no more than $700 million.

And limiting the amount of aid available could be a game changer for some states.

In South Carolina, state schools chief Jim Rex said that given the tough budget conditions there, officials will have to make sure they can craft a successful application and have the capacity to deliver on the promises. The state constructed its original application around $300 million in anticipated federal funding, but South Carolina will be capped at almost half that amount in round two.

“We may not do quite as much,” Mr. Rex said of round two. He said no decision had been made yet on whether the state would even reapply.

In addition to submitting written plans, the round-one finalists—15 states and the District of Columbia—had made in-person presentations in Washington.

Collaboration Highlighted

The $4 billion in Race to the Top grants, which seek to reward states for their commitment to improving teacher effectiveness, data systems, low-performing schools, and academic standards and assessments, are paid for through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed last year by Congress. The Obama administration is seeking an additional $1.35 billion in the fiscal 2011 federal budget to continue the contest next year.

With the announcement of the winners came the public release of the scores of all 41 applicants. They show, for example, that South Dakota ranked last in the race, at 135.8 points, falling more than 100 points behind the next-closest laggard—Arizona, which scored 240.2 points.

By selecting two states that have near-universal support from school districts and state and local teachers’ unions, and in touting that achievement in press briefings, the Education Department is telegraphing the importance of stakeholder buy-in. That clear message could help shape states’ strategies for round two.

“I think it gives unions and districts veto power” over states’ applications, said Andrew Smarick, an adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. “The real question is,” added Mr. Smarick, who has been a prolific writer on the Race to the Top program, “can any other state pull off what Tennessee and Delaware did?”

Florida and Louisiana, which had been seen as top contenders in the competition, did not have such strong local support.

Florida had an aggressive plan to improve teacher effectiveness, and was another of the four finalist states that opted to make student-performance data worth 50 percent on teacher evaluations. The state went even further than the other finalists by requiring that all districts use the data to inform new performance-pay programs as well.

But insistence on those policies may have been the state’s downfall in the end. Of all the 16 finalists, Florida—which ended the competition with 431.4 points—had the least amount of buy-in from its teachers’ unions. Of the Florida school districts participating in the state’s Race to the Top plan, only 8 percent had buy-in from their local unions.

Florida’s education commissioner, Eric J. Smith, issued a brief statement saying that he was “confident that with ... continued support, the feedback from our first application, and the possibilities contained in ongoing legislative efforts, we will be in a very strong position to win this next phase.”

‘Key Lever’

Louisiana had been singled out for praise, time and again, by Secretary Duncan for its student- and teacher-data systems and the way it tracks how well teacher-preparation programs are doing. The state’s plan on teacher effectiveness was built principally around its pledge to design new teacher evaluations with a heavy emphasis on student performance. Louisiana is also one of six states (Delaware is another) that are part of a new, $75 million initiative to turn around low-performing schools using strategies created by the Boston-based Mass Insight Education and Research Institute.

With its state-run Recovery School District in place since 2005 to intervene in low-performing schools, Louisiana also has more experience than most other states at intervening in large numbers of schools.

But unlike in Delaware and Tennessee, state officials in Louisiana did not muster broad-based support from local school districts, school boards, and teachers’ unions. The state came in 11th, with 418.2 points.

State Superintendent Paul G. Pastorek acknowledged that lack of local support was a likely factor in the state’s final score, but he said he does not want to water down any of the proposals in order to garner more buy-in for a round-two Race to the Top bid.

“I hate to adjust what we think is right just so that we can get a bigger score on collaboration,” he said. “We want to remain as ambitious as we’ve been in the past.”

Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, emphasized the importance of collaboration, not union leverage, in putting together Race to the Top applications.

“The key lever to changing schools is changing systems, which means you have to change the labor-management dynamic to be one that is very disciplined and very collaborative,” she said, citing the combative environment in New York state, a finalist that didn’t have an overwhelming amount of local district and union buy-in.

“The screaming you heard from the [newspaper] tabloids in New York compared to the working together quietly in Tennessee and Delaware teaches us a thing or two,” she said.

Mr. Duncan maintains that no one factor is the key to winning the grants. “This is a 500-point competition,” he said. “There are no make-or-break categories.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 2010 edition of Education Week as $3.4 Billion Remains in Race to Top Fund


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