Education Funding

Districts Vying for $400 Million in New Race to Top Grants

By Michele McNeil — August 21, 2012 5 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education is kicking off the $400 million Race to the Top competition for districts after making significant changes to the contest rules to assuage school board members and prod more large districts to apply.

Federal officials threw out a proposal to require competing districts to implement performance evaluations of school board members, and raised the maximum grant amount for the largest districts to $40 million, from $25 million, according to final rules released this month.

Already, several big-city districts—including Dallas, New York, and Los Angeles—have said they’ll apply for the grants, which are intended to improve personalized teaching and learning at the local level. The deadline for seeking the awards, which will range from $5 million to $40 million, to be spent over four years, is Oct. 30.

“I couldn’t be more grateful, given the size of our district, that the amount has increased,” said John E. Deasy, the superintendent of the 664,000-student Los Angeles district.

Districts to Compete in Race to the Top

The U.S. Department of Education is kicking off a $400 million Race to the Top competition for school districts.

•In general, districts or groups of districts serving 2,000 students or more are eligible, though consortia of at least 10 districts may apply even if they can’t meet that threshold.
• Districts must have implemented evaluation systems for teachers, principals, and superintendents by the 2014-15 school year.
• At least 40 percent of students in participating schools must be from low-income families.
• Districts must have data systems that can match student information to their teachers.
• The president of the local teachers’ union or association must sign off on the application.

District will be scored on:
• Academic track record and transparency (such as if it makes school-level expenditures readily available to the public) 45 points
• “Vision” for reform 40 points
• Continuous improvement (having a strategy and performance measures for long-term improvement) 30 points
• Policy and infrastructure (such as giving building leaders more autonomy) 25 points
• Budget and sustainability 20 points
• BONUS: Collaboration with public and private partners to help improve students’ social, emotional, and behavioral needs 10 additional points

• Applications are due Oct. 30; districts interested in applying are asked to let the department know by Aug. 30.
• Grants, ranging from $5 million to $40 million, will be awarded in December.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education

He said he didn’t know whether the district would have applied had the maximum award remained at $25 million, given the amount of work involved in the application.

On the flip side, however, the smallest awards were made even smaller—down from $10 million to $5 million—as the department sought to include districts with lower enrollments in the competition. In a nod to rural districts, the department lowered the number of students who must be served by a district or groups of districts to 2,000 from 2,500. It is also allowing groups of at least 10 districts to apply regardless of the number of students.

Not Far Enough?

But for some, the department didn’t go far enough to help rural and small-town school districts.

“To be prevented from competing in Race to the Top because you’re small is frustrating,” said Noelle Ellerson, the assistant director for policy and advocacy for the Alexandria, Va.-based American Association of School Administrators.

The changes were made after the Education Department received more than 475 comments when the draft rules were released in May.

“We want to help schools become engines of innovation through personalized learning,” Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. “The Race to the Top-District competition will help us meet that goal.”

The competition comes as the department, which has focused on state-level efforts to improve schools in previous Race to the Top contests, switches gears and tries to use grants to advance its education ideas at the local level.

As another example, the department is pursuing district-level waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act geared toward helping districts in states that, for whatever reason, are not getting or do not want state-level waivers of key provisions of the 10-year-old federal law.

To be eligible for the new Race to the Top competition, a district must implement evaluation systems for teachers, principals, and superintendents by the 2014-15 school year, in addition to meeting the 2,000-student enrollment threshold.

Backing Off

No longer will districts have to create, if they haven’t already, an evaluation system for school board members, as was proposed in the Education Department’s original rules. That component drew criticism during the comment period, in part because school board members are generally elected by the voters or are appointed by another governing body or a mayor. They are not hired by school districts.

Ann Whalen, who oversees Race to the Top implementation at the federal department, said in an Aug. 10 conference call with reporters that the department believes school board accountability and transparency around board members’ effectiveness need to be improved. But the agency decided that a grant contest like this one was not the avenue for pursuing those aims, she said.

After meeting minimum eligibility requirements, districts must get to the heart of the competition: devising a plan to improve teaching and learning using personalized “strategies, tools, and supports.”

That personalized-learning element makes up a significant part of the 200-point grading scale for the competition, at 40 points. Only a district’s prior academic record and its commitment to transparency—such as if it makes school-level expenditures readily available to the public—earns more points.

Districts also will be judged on their vision for reform, plans for continuous improvement, existing district policies, and spending and sustainability plans.

Applicants will get bonus points if they collaborate with public and private partners to help improve the social, emotional, and behavioral needs of students.

After districts firm up their applications, states and mayors must be given 10 business days—up from five days in the proposed rules—to comment on the proposals. However, the contest rules don’t require districts to make any changes with the feedback they’re given.

Tight Schedule

The contest time frame is tight for all involved, as districts that are just now starting a new school year have less than three months to complete an application that is 116 pages long, demands long-form answers, and includes numerous data points. Each application also needs the approval of the president of the local teachers’ union or association, if there is one.

That is far less time than states had for their Race to the Top applications during the 2010 contest.

And observers are questioning just how many superintendents have the time, money, and staff capacity to tackle a major federal grant proposal.

“It’s very complex. There are a bunch of different policy priorities,” said Peter Zamora, the director of federal relations for the Council of Chief State School Officers, in Washington. “States have greater capacity than districts to move comprehensive reform and to engage in some of the complexities around personalized learning and grant writing.”

The Education Department has signaled that it wants to ensure that not just large urban districts win. It also is hoping to attract districts in states that did not win a Race to the Top grant. (Eleven states and the District of Columbia shared $4 billion in grants in 2010 for their improvement ideas around standards and assessments, data systems, teaching, and low-performing schools.)

So districts will be entered in different categories depending on whether they are rural or not, and whether they are in a Race to the Top state or not. The department will make awards to top scorers in each category as long as the winners exceed a threshold for quality that the department hasn’t spelled out yet.

A version of this article appeared in the August 22, 2012 edition of Education Week as Rules for Race to the Top District Competition Change Amid Complaints


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