Special Report
Education Funding

District Stances on Race to Top Plans Vary

By Lesli A. Maxwell — January 19, 2010 6 min read

In the final sprint to polish Race to the Top applications, hundreds of school districts shunned a shot at a share of $4 billion in grants by refusing to sign on to their states’ plans for the federal competition.

California officials had secured the signatures of 790 local education agencies late last week, including most of the state’s largest school systems and hundreds of individual charter schools, as the Jan. 19 application deadline neared. But California is home to more than 1,000 school districts and roughly 800 charter schools. San Diego Unified, with 117,000 students, was the largest district to rebuff the plan.

Louisiana, widely seen as a front-runner for winning a Race to the Top grant, nailed down firm commitments from 28 districts and announced that 32 others had declined to sign. In Michigan, 715 districts and charter schools were on board; the state has 848 districts.

Kentucky, in contrast, got every one of its 174 districts to agree to take part in its plan. And in Colorado, seen as another early favorite in the competition, the number late last week was 132 out of 178 districts, representing more than 90 percent of the state’s schoolchildren.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, pulled the plug entirely on his state’s Race to the Top bid late last week, saying Texas would not cede its control over school improvement to win as much as $700 million.

A lot rides on how successful the states vying for one of the federal grants are in securing “buy in” from local education agencies, or leas, including district superintendents, school board presidents, and teachers’ union leaders.

Out of a total of 500 points in the Race to the Top competition, 45 are directly connected to whether states secure agreement from local school leaders to implement what in many cases will be an ambitious and difficult array of changes designed to improve public education.

Signing Off on Reform Plans

Some measures in a model “memorandum of understanding” for the grant program in the category “Great Teachers and Leaders” include:

• Measuring student growth
• Designing and implementing evaluation systems
• Conducting annual evaluations
• Using evaluations to inform professional development
• Using evaluations to inform compensation, promotion, and retention
• Using evaluations to inform tenure and/or full certification
• Using evaluations to inform removal
• Ensuring equitable distribution of effective teachers and principals:

— High-poverty and/or high-minority schools — Hard-to-staff subjects and specialty areas

• Providing effective support to teachers and principals

Source: U.S. Department of Education

States must demonstrate those agreements in signed memorandums of understanding, or MOUs, from local school officials. Under the rules for Race to the Top, an MOU requires the signature of the district superintendent, president of the local school board, and leader of the local teachers’ union if there is one.

The grants from the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top Fund, supported by economic-stimulus money, are meant to foster states’ school improvement efforts reflecting criteria laid out by the department. The aid will be awarded in two batches; applications for the second round are due June 1. (“Starting Gun Sounds for ‘Race to the Top’,” Nov. 18, 2009.)

Labor Wary

Teachers’ unions withheld their support for the plans in several states, including Michigan, where only 42 locals out of roughly 600 signed on to the state’s plan, said Martin Ackley, a spokesman for the Michigan education department. In Florida, where 59 out of 67 districts backed the state’s plan, only five local unions did so.

School officials who declined to back their states’ RTT bids cited reasons that ranged from opposition to federal intrusion into their school improvement efforts to deciding that the money at stake for their districts would fall short of covering the costs of carrying out the required changes.

“We just don’t agree that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to improving our schools,” said David Britten, the superintendent of the 1,700-student Godfrey-Lee school system, a high-poverty district adjacent to Grand Rapids, Mich. “And frankly, for $50,000 a year for four years, ... we’d have to do an awful lot of funny things for just a little bit of money.”

It is not clear what will appeal more to the judges of the Race to the Top competition, the largest discretionary pool of education money available under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Would they favor a state like Kentucky, where districts unanimously signed on, but where charter schools—which the federal criteria encourage—still aren’t allowed to operate? Or one like Louisiana, where fewer than half the districts are willing to participate?

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said repeatedly that states will have to clear a high bar to win Race to the Top money.

Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee, said a lawmaker in Colorado told him recently that he worries the state might be penalized for working closely with the state teachers’ union to devise a plan that the vast majority of districts and local unions were willing to support.

“He was supportive of the collaborative approach, but didn’t like that the state had to water down some of its plans to get that kind of agreement,” Mr. Williams said. “I think there are questions in people’s minds about whether [President Barack Obama] will value results more than collaboration.”

Details about individual states’ plans have seeped out in recent weeks, along with news of whether districts and teachers’ unions were accepting or rejecting them. Some observers, including Andy Smarick, a distinguished visiting fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, have raised questions about whether an aggressive reform plan could garner widespread stakeholder buy-in.

In several posts on the Washington think tank’s Flypaper blog, Mr. Smarick wrote that the stronger a state’s application for Race to the Top looked, the less likely it was to have enthusiastic local district and union backing. For what he considered weaker proposals, such as Kentucky’s, buy-in was much higher.

Weak vs. Strong

“The state passed a weak legislative ‘reform’ package in the last several days, hoping to position itself for an RTT grant,” Mr. Smarick wrote of Kentucky in a Jan. 13 post. “But the state, one of the few left without a charter law, considered and rejected an amendment that would have authorized charters.”

Lisa Y. Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky education department, said Terry Holliday, the education commissioner, put a high premium on getting widespread consensus around the state’s plan. He traveled widely across the state to get feedback, which included considerable opposition to enacting a charter school law, she said.

“We asked for input early on because we knew that the kind of things we’d put in our application could not be done unless we had the buy-in,” Ms. Gross said. The bill passed late last week will allow districts to bring in education management organizations to help turn around low-performing schools, an approach that will include “some flexibility on staffing,” Ms. Gross said.

Kentucky is also poised to become the first state to adopt common academic standards, which are also a key piece of the Race to the Top, worth 70 points in the scoring rubric.

In some states, district leaders were worried about what recourse they would have if they decided, after signing an MOU, that they wanted to withdraw from participation, said Mary Kusler, the assistant director of governmental relations for the American Association of School Administrators, in Arlington, Va.

“There’s been confusion and conflicting information about how binding those MOUs will be,” Ms. Kusler said. “There seems to be a different answer depending on which state you are in.”

But in California, the complaints from some education leaders were largely about being left out of crafting the state’s plan and never having a clear picture of what they were being asked to sign.

“There were just too many unanswered questions,” said Scott P. Plotkin, the executive director of the California School Boards Association, which advised its members to use caution in signing the MOUs with the state. “In many cases, there were boards that just had genuine disagreements on the policy in the state’s plan.”

In the San Diego Unified system, there were more practical considerations, said Bernie Rhinerson, the district’s spokesman.

“The state hadn’t completed its plan, and we didn’t know how much we might be getting from the grant, so we couldn’t do any real cost-benefit analysis,” he said. “The district just decided that we couldn’t sign a blank check.”

Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org.
A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2010 edition of Education Week as Districts Shun Stimulus Bids

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