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Districts Bail on Race to the Top in Five States

By Lesli A. Maxwell — January 22, 2014 5 min read
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The 12 states that won the $4 billion Race to the Top sweepstakes are forging ahead into the final months of implementing their education improvement plans, but some will be finishing out the endeavor with fewer school districts on board than when they embarked.

Delaware, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, and Ohio all have had some local districts or charter schools bail out on their Race to the Top program, though many did so early on. The reasons for backing out are as varied as the states and districts themselves, though a central complaint has been that the district-level grants issued to pay for the states’ Race to the Top requirements fell short of their actual costs.

Delaware lost its biggest district last spring—the 17,000-student Christina system—in a dispute over paying large bonuses to the most effective teachers. Christina forfeited $2.3 million of its $10 million grant.

Massachusetts shed 38 of 276 participants, most of them before the end of the first year, while North Carolina has lost seven charter schools, but no districts.

In Ohio, where 538 districts signed up for Race to the Top, 107 have since dropped out.

But the cascade of Race to the Top dropouts has been most dramatic in New York, where 40 districts terminated their participation within a few weeks late last year as controversy kicked up over the state’s plan to collect a trove of student data to be stored in a cloud-based repository operated by a private, nonprofit group. Most of the districts that have bailed out are in small cities and suburbs, especially in the Lower Hudson Valley region, where more than two dozen decided to withdraw in an attempt to avoid providing student data to a third-party vendor.

“Many districts have found that the grants they were getting were less than what they’ve had to spend on Race to the Top implementation,” said David K. Albert, the communications and research director for the New York State School Boards Association. “Then the data-privacy issue helped put things over the edge, and districts said, ‘Enough.’ ”

“The requirement to submit all this data to a private vendor was a little bit Orwellian.”—Scott G. Martzloff, Williamsville Central district, N.Y.

New York, with more than 700 districts, snagged one of the heftiest Race to the Top awards in 2010, with nearly $700 million set aside for the state. At the outset, roughly 90 percent of the state’s districts signed on to the initiative.

Florida was the other big winner, with a similarly sized grant. In that state, no districts have dropped out, said Cheryl Etters, a spokeswoman for the state education department.

Georgia, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Tennessee have also held on to all original participants, according to spokespeople in each state. The other winners—the District of Columbia and Hawaii—operate as single school systems.

As winners, all 12 states—and the districts that agreed to participate in exchange for federal funding—committed to initiatives favored by President Barack Obama’s administration. Among them: adopting common academic standards, tying at least part of teachers’ evaluations to student-outcomes such as test scores, and intervening in low-performing schools.

But most states have struggled to keep to their original commitments in the winning applications, especially when it comes to rolling out new teacher and principal evaluations as promised.

Spotty Exodus

One Ohio superintendent, who was an early adopter of the state’s Race to the Top plans, moved to bail out of the initiative after, he said, the state’s conditions changed.

“When we consented to do this, I told the state that we’d work hard to comply with all the elements, with the exception of teacher evaluations,” said Mike Johnson, the superintendent in the 2,100-student Bexley district. “We were told that was OK, but about a year later, the state said we had to implement its teacher-evaluation piece with no exception.”

Mr. Johnson, with the backing of the Bexley school board, formally withdrew the district soon after that, forfeiting about half its original $100,000 grant. And though state law will require all Ohio districts to adopt the teacher-evaluation requirements as laid out in the state’s Race to the Top program, Bexley and other nonparticipating districts will have an additional year before that mandate kicks in.

“We are just forging ahead, and getting out of Race to the Top has given us more time to do this thoughtfully and in good faith with our teachers,” he said.

As part of its winning application, New York pledged to create a new student-data system that would ease the sharing of information between districts and with teachers and parents.

Sudden Backlash

But last fall, as all the Race to the Top districts faced the state’s deadline of selecting one of three data “dashboards” that had been designed by third-party vendors, and concerns grew about the security of inBloom, the nonprofit chosen by New York state to encrypt and store the data in a Web-based cloud, dozens of local education leaders and parents resisted the plan.

One local superintendent said concerns over protecting the privacy of student data outweighed any downsides to exiting Race to the Top.

“The requirement to submit all this data to a private vendor was a little bit Orwellian,” said Scott G. Martzloff, the superintendent of the 10,200-student Williamsville Central district in western New York. “We were worried about how long some of this data would follow students. Would a disciplinary issue in high school be seen later by a college-admissions official? We just didn’t know.

“Pretty much all districts signed on to Race to the Top because a little money attached to help implement these massive reforms was better than nothing, but looking back now, I can’t really say it was worth it.”

Tom Dunn, a spokesman for the state education department, said that 644 districts remain in New York’s Race to the Top program. The 40 that quit, he said, will forfeit a total of $479,000 in grants.

But Mr. Martzloff said Williamsville had already spent its full $70,000 grant before deciding to quit. He said he didn’t think he would have to return the money.

By not using the dashboards, though, Williamsville parents won’t have access to the student data that parents in other districts will have. But Mr. Martzloff said the district’s own data collection keeps parents informed about their children and their schools. State education officials have told district leaders that they must still submit much of the same student data even after withdrawing from Race to the Top because of federal mandates and that data will still be turned over to inBloom.

Though the wave of districts dropping out has virtually stopped since the rush late last year, some local educators, such as Raymond Sanchez, the superintendent of the 4,700-student Ossining Union district in Westchester County, are still contemplating withdrawing.

Walking away is a tough call for his district, but parents have persisted in their concerns over data privacy, Mr. Sanchez said. Should it terminate, the district stands to lose a $500,000 Race to the Top grant for teacher professional development.

Still, Mr. Sanchez said that he and school board members “are strongly considering this option.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 22, 2014 edition of Education Week as In Five States, Districts Bail Out on Race to the Top Grants

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