Special Report

Hurdles Ahead in ‘Race to Top’

By Michele McNeil — August 14, 2009 6 min read

Includes updates and/or revisions

As states scramble to spend and report on millions of dollars of education stimulus funds already flowing their way, they face another daunting task if they want a shot at even more money: navigating the complex application process for $4 billion from the Race to the Top Fund.

Merely filling out the award application will take each state 642 hours, according to the U.S. Department of Education, which included that estimate in its 35-page draft guidelines for the Race to the Top competition, published late last month in the Federal Register.

That’s a lot of staff time for state education departments, which have been stung by staffing woes and budget cuts caused largely by a national recession, declining tax revenues, and big state budget deficits. (“Belt-Tightening Puts State Chiefs on Spot,” Dec. 3, 2008.)

“This issue of capacity faces rural states with smaller departments, but also some big states that have seen their departments decimated,” said Brenda Welburn, the executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based National Association of State Boards of Education. “There’s a lot of concern in this competitive environment on how we put together a meaningful application and then realistically deliver on it.”

Still, states remain determined to compete.

In Indiana, newly elected Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett recently saw his budget cut for fiscal 2010 by $1.3 million—a sizable chunk out of what was an $8 million annual budget. But Cam Savage, the state education department’s spokesman, said that regardless of any staffing challenges, Indiana plans to submit an application in Phase 1 of the program, which will be due by the end of the year.

The Indiana department has directed its chief operating officer with leading the application process, and will draw on other staff members as needed. The department also hasn’t ruled out using its own money to hire a consultant.

“This is an opportunity we just can’t pass up,” Mr. Savage said.

The federal Education Department echoes that sentiment in its Federal Register notice of July 29: “The benefits conveyed on a state through its receipt of a grant will greatly exceed those costs. In addition, even states that apply but are unsuccessful in the competitions may derive benefits, as the process of working with [school districts] and other stakeholders on the state application may help accelerate the pace of education reforms.”

The Race to the Top compettion comes just as states are to begin, in October, their quarterly reporting for economic stimulus funds they’ve already received—including detailed information on how money was spent and how many jobs were either created or saved.

In fact, the federal Education Department, in a nod to states’ concerns about managing stimulus money and reporting requirements, on Aug. 14 proposed regulations that would let states reserve more of the stimulus funds bound for special education and Title I programs for disadvantaged students to help meet administrative demands.

Obama Launch

The Race to the Top competition, officially kicked off by President Obama last month in a speech at the federal Education Department, will judge states on 19 criteria that range from how sophisticated their data systems are to whether they allow unlimited numbers of charter schools. (“States Scramble for Coveted Dollars,” Aug. 12, 2009.)

The department will award an undetermined number of states for innovative education reform proposals that center on improving academic standards, teacher quality, data collection, and the lowest-performing schools. The department is accepting coments on the draft criteria before making them final in October, after which states will have 60 days to apply for Phase 1 of the grants. The second phase will begin early next year.

Fifteen states are getting an important financial edge to help them in that part of national education reform competition, which is a relatively small—but highly sought-after—sum of the money being doled out under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed by Congress in February. Depending on how many awards the department gives out, and how big a state’s student population is, states could be looking at $200 million to $300 million per grant (if 15 grants were awarded, for example).

The Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has hand-picked states to receive up to $250,000 each to hire consultants to help them fill out their applications. Those states are Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas.

They represent either states in which Gates is already invested—or which the foundation thinks are on the right path to school improvement.

Chris Williams, a foundation spokesman, would not comment on any Race to the Top work the foundation is doing in states.

But state officials have wasted no time in making use of the assistance. Kentucky, for one, is hiring the Bridgespan Group—a national nonprofit- and philanthropic-consulting firm—with its money from the Gates Foundation.

“That group will be a key component in our application, helping us structure it and get the appropriate information entered,” said Lisa Gross, a Kentucky education department spokeswoman. “We will be working very closely, in some cases on a daily basis, with ... Bridgespan.”

Kentucky’s strategy goes beyond just hiring a consultant. Ms. Gross added that personnel from the governor’s office and the Education Professional Standards Board also are working aggressively on the application.

New Responsibilities

The job of competing for Race to the Top grants is more than just filling in blanks on an application or securing letters of support for key stakeholders—one ofthe criteria on which states will be judged. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said he wants innovative proposals that move states beyond the status quo.

Many state-level officials say capacity issues aren’t just about having enough people to do the work, but also having visionary people who can deliver on what Mr. Duncan wants.

“State agencies were created as compliance agencies, not to be agents of transformative change,” said Dane Linn, the education division director of the Washington-based National Governors Association’s Center for Best Practices. “There’s going to be a challenge for a significant number of states to conceptualize a project that’s innovative, and there’s going to be a significant challenge for some states on the research and evaluative piece.”

Even though governors technically apply for Race to the Top money, states say most of the responsibility for completing the applications and coming up with the education reform plan will rest with education departments and state schools’ chiefs.

In Louisiana, “the heavy lifting is being done by the department of education,” said state board of education member Tammie A. McDaniel, who declined to talk about the money her state is getting from the Gates Foundation. “The board will weigh in on policies.”

And she acknowledged, “it is a daunting task, especially to work very collaboratively across state agencies and at every level of government, as we are.”

Rural Concerns

Certainly, not all states will apply.

Marty Strange, the policy director for the Arlington, Va.-based Rural School and Community Trust, said the lengthy list of criteria—which are more focused on urban problems than on rural ones—may deter some from undertaking the time-consuming application process.

He pointed to one criterion on which states will be judged: whether they have charter schools and allow their unlimited expansion. Most rural states with small, spread-out student populations don’t face a lot of demand for charter schools, Mr. Strange said.

Another criterion that judges states on whether they have merit-pay programs for teachers may hurt rural states, he said, because some districts are small enough that using student-test data to make salary decisions would be unreliable because of small sample sizes.

“The criteria are so onerous for some rural states,” Mr. Strange said, “they won’t apply.”

Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by a grant from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org.
A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2009 edition of Education Week as Hurdles Ahead in ‘Race to Top’


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