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Finalists Cram for Race to Top Presentations

By Lesli A. Maxwell — March 10, 2010 5 min read
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With millions of grant dollars on the line, representatives of the 16 state finalists for federal Race to the Top prize money will go to Washington next week to make final, in-person pitches to the U.S. Department of Education for investment in their brand of school reform.

How a state’s delegation performs in a 30-minute presentation and a 60-minute question-and-answer session with a panel of judges could make or break its chances in round one of the competition. The Race to the Top Fund will award $4 billion in such grants under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

That pressure has had the 15 states and the District of Columbia—which learned only March 4 that they were finalists—scrambling to perfect their presentations and assemble high-powered five-person teams to deliver them.

See Also

View the accompanying interactive state snapshots, The Sweet Sixteen: Race to Top Finalists Snapshots. Includes highlights of the proposals submitted by each of the 16 finalists.

“This is a performance,” said Kentucky Commissioner of Education Terry Holliday. “We’ve got a great team. All we can do is tell Kentucky’s story, and if it’s good enough, it’s good enough. If it’s not, we’ll look at round two.”

Some states are preparing by reading the other finalists’ applications to size up the competition. Others are focused on how to whittle down hundreds of pages of a detailed proposal into a pithy, powerful pitch.

Many are still making final plans on whom to include in their delegations, a delicate calculation for some states that includes debate over whether to bring governors. (The governors of Delaware, Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee are definitely planning to appear.)

And some finalists are turning to outside experts to help them dress-rehearse their presentations. A select group of states— Colorado, Illinois, Rhode Island, and Tennessee are among them—have been invited by the nonprofit Aspen Institute to do a dry run of their presentations before the real thing.

The Aspen Institute, which has headquarters in Washington and works in many public-policy arenas, is an influential player in education circles. Judy Wurtzel, the deputy assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development in the Education Department, served as the executive director of Aspen’s education program until she was tapped by U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan last spring to work in the department. Paul G. Pastorek, the state superintendent in Louisiana—one of the finalist states—serves on Aspen’s No Child Left Behind Act commission.

Ross Wiener, the executive director of the Aspen Institute’s education and society program, declined to name the states that will rehearse their Race to the Top presentations or say how many of the finalists were invited to receive Aspen’s feedback.

“We told the states that we would do this off the record and with confidentiality,” Mr. Wiener said.

Asked how Aspen selected the states, Mr. Wiener would only say that the organization had offered its help to those that it has “been in conversations with” for several months about Race to the Top.

Education Week queried several finalist states to see if Aspen had extended the invitation to them. Kentucky received no such offer, said Lisa Gross, the spokeswoman for the state department of education. Neither did Georgia, said Kathy Cox, that state’s schools chief.

“They didn’t contact me,” Ms. Cox said.

High-Stakes Preparation

The stakes are high for the finalists, especially since each scored above 400 points on a 500-point grading scale for the voluminous applications they submitted to the federal Education Department. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said recently that any of the 16 could emerge as winners, but that most of them would end up empty-handed, at least in the first round of awards.

The Education Department’s rules allow only five people to actually make the pitch and prohibit any outside consultants from attending. According to a two-page guidance that the department gave to the finalist states, presenters “must have a deep knowledge of your application and have significant, ongoing roles in and responsibilities for executing your state’s Race to the Top activities.”

In New York—a state that many observers had not expected to see as a finalist because of a failed effort in the legislature to lift a cap on charter schools, an education priority for the Obama administration—officials are likely to highlight what they view as the state’s strong proposal around improving teacher and school leader effectiveness, said David Steiner, the state education commissioner.

“I think that what is clear is that the states bring very different strengths,” said Mr. Steiner. “I think those professionals who have had the patience to read New York’s application were able to move beyond what the legislature did or didn’t do here.”

Ms. Cox, the Georgia schools chief, said that besides herself, her state’s team will include Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican; two of his top policy advisers; and J. Alvin Wilbanks, the superintendent in Gwinnett County, the state’s largest district.

“To have him with us to talk about how he’s willing to make the investment in these reforms is a real feather in our cap,” Ms. Cox said of Mr. Wilbanks.

North Carolina’s schools chief, June Atkinson, said her state delegation, which will include her and Gov. Beverly Perdue, will also feature local school district leaders.

Kentucky is being strategic about whom to include in its delegation. Along with Mr. Holliday, the group will include Mary Ann Blankenship, the executive director of the Kentucky Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union. Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat and a strong supporter of the state’s Race to the Top bid, will not attend, Mr. Holliday said.

“We got the sense that the [federal] department really wants people who are directly in charge of this and can answer discrete questions about our application,” Mr. Holliday said. “We’ll be ready.”

Mr. Steiner, New York’s schools chief, said he hopes that the department and Secretary Duncan will ultimately choose winners whose plans represent different approaches to school improvement.

“I think the most important thing is that the scoring points to the fact that within the Race to the Top criteria, there is more than one path to a persuasive vision,” Mr. Steiner said. “If the secretary wants to look at a couple of different models, and sustain those with federal funding and treat them in a sense as pilots for the rest of the nation, that seems to me to be sensible.”

The other finalists for the first-round grants are Florida, Massachusetts, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina.

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A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 2010 edition of Education Week as Finalists Cram for Race to Top Presentations

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