Education Funding

Alabama Chief Complains to Duncan about Race to Top

By Sean Cavanagh — September 01, 2010 2 min read
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Alabama schools superintendent Joseph B. Morton has written a long—and at times impassioned—letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan complaining about what he says was an unfair Race to the Top competition.

The state, which finished last in the scoring among 36 Round 2 applicants, was wrongly punished because it does not have charter schools and could not muster the necessary support from its largest teachers’ union, Morton argues.

“Shouldn’t RTTT applications be judged on a statewide vision and application that reflects needed changes and then [be] funded,” the schools chief writes, “so those who initially resisted can witness progress and the state then build a consensus for continued reform?”

In his four-page letter, Morton also says that Alabama should not have lost points for not having adopted academic standards under the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which he says the state’s board of education is scheduled to consider later this year. The common core effort “was created by design as being outside the federal government,” Morton writes, “and your actions by including it in RTTT appear to some to move it toward federal government control.”

Morton was hardly the only state official aggrieved by the Race to the Top process and the final results. Officials in Colorado and Louisiana, among others, also questioned aspects of the scoring.

But the Alabama official’s letter stands out for its raw and somewhat personal tone. Morton begins it by recalling his first meeting with Duncan, in which Morton says he gave the secretary an Alabama newspaper article in which the state schools official praised Duncan’s appointment to President Obama’s cabinet. He goes on to recall participating in a commemorative civil rights event with the secretary in Alabama, in March of 2010.

By the end of the letter he writes, “I still think President Obama picked the right person. However, if much of future federal funding is built around a flawed competitive system I believe history will judge his decision"—presumably Duncan’s selection—"to be as flawed as the RTTT process to date.”

While Morton clearly believes Alabama’s lack of charter schools hurt his state’s application, not everyone agrees. The Associated Press reports that the state’s bid would still have fallen short, even with charters, because of lack of union and city and county support for the proposal.

Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said the scoring system used during the competition was “fair and clear,” and didn’t overemphasize charter schools or any other criteria.

“We believe Race to the Top has been an unprecedented success in driving reform across the country,” Hamilton said. “We’re very proud of the level of transparency in the contest.”

Charter schools were one of several criteria, he added, and “it wasn’t a make-or-break category.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.