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Education Funding

La.'s Race to Top Team Navigates Last-Minute Bump

By Lesli A. Maxwell — March 17, 2010 5 min read
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A five-person team from Louisiana presented its case in Washington this morning to a panel of judges for why the state should land a piece of the $4 billion federal Race to the Top prize, amid claims from a state school board member that the group failed to represent the thousands of poor minority children who stand to be affected should the state prevail in the competition.

Linda Johnson, an elected member of Louisiana’s board of elementary and secondary education who has served on the panel since 1999, said in an interview Tuesday that she was angry that the delegation initially put together by Paul G. Pastorek, the state schools chief, did not include an African-American educator.

Specifically, she said the delegation should have included at least one of several African-American superintendents from Louisiana school districts that agreed to participate in the state’s Race to the Top initiatives. The majority of children enrolled in the districts that have signed on to Louisiana’s Race to the Top plan are poor and black, she said.

“The children who are the constituents of this are not represented,” said Ms. Johnson, who is African-American. “Validating and valuing minority intellect would have been a wise move.”

In an interview shortly after the team completed its pitch today, Mr. Pastorek said that for several days he had “been playing with a flexible approach to staffing the interview team.” On Monday, he selected one African-American representative, Karen Carter Peterson, a Democratic state senator from New Orleans. Ms. Peterson was among several possible team members who went through practice sessions in recent days to prepare them for the presentation.

“There were a host of people we were considering putting on the team who we kept in the mix up until Monday,” including Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, he said.

Balancing Act

Louisiana was among the seven other state finalists to appear before a panel of five judges at the U.S. Department of Education today to make their cases for the education improvement grants, which are being funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Eight others, including South Carolina, made their in-person pitches on Tuesday.

The dust-up over the Louisiana delegation is illustrative of how state finalists have had to balance politics and strategy as they selected five people to represent their Race to the Top applications before peer reviewers serving as judges on behalf of the Education Department.

Some states elected to bring their governors, while others have focused on recruiting a broader array of representatives. Kentucky’s delegation, for example, includes the executive director of the statewide teachers’ union.

Ms. Johnson said she has been a staunch advocate for Louisiana’s participation in the Race to the Top and had worked to persuade the superintendents who run school districts in the 16 Louisiana parishes she represents to sign on to the effort.

“Let me be extremely clear: I want the state to win Race to the Top,” said Ms. Johnson. “I have supported Louisiana getting this from the beginning.”

Ms. Johnson said she was first notified of the state’s delegation over the weekend. Originally, it was to include Mr. Pastorek; Paul G. Vallas, the superintendent of the state-run Recovery School District; Glenny Lee Buquet, a member of the state board of education; Rayne Martin, the chief of staff to Mr. Vallas, who was the state’s point person on drafting the application; and George Noell, a professor at Louisiana State University who is the architect of the state’s ground-breaking value-added system that directly tracks how well teacher-preparation programs are doing to produce effective graduates. All of them are white.

That upset Ms. Johnson, who contacted Mr. Pastorek to express her concern that no African-Americans would be representing the state. On Tuesday, Ms. Johnson said she learned from Mr. Pastorek that he had tapped a new person for the team: Ms. Peterson, the state senator. She would replace Mr. Noell, Ms. Johnson said she was told. But that has not appeased Ms. Johnson, who insisted that Louisiana should have sent one of its black superintendents.

Mr. Pastorek said he was “sensitive” to the issue raised by Ms. Johnson, but changed his mind about the original team mostly because it consisted entirely of officials from the state education department.

Mr. Pastorek said several people who had been considered for the team, including one district superintendent who is black, weren’t chosen for strategic reasons.

“We did some practice sessions and put these people through their paces,” he said. “The interview guidelines from the [Education Department] made it clear that this interview was really going to focus on the details of the application.”

He said that Ms. Peterson was a strong choice because she was involved in drafting legislation that ultimately led to the creation of the Recovery School District, the state-run entity that has taken over dozens of failing schools in New Orleans and other parishes.

“I also wanted [Ms. Johnson] there to demonstrate political will,” he said.

Debriefing After Pitch

Mr. Pastorek called the interview process a “good exercise that allowed the reviewers to get a clearer picture of what we are talking about. They were really intent on teasing out details to make sure that they understood what we are saying we will do in Louisiana.” The state has applied for $314 million.

Jim Rex, South Carolina’s schools chief, spoke to reporters shortly after his state’s team concluded its 90-minute session on Tuesday. He called it “comprehensive and rigorous,” with lots of detailed questions and requests for clarification from the reviewers hearing the state’s pitch for a share of the $4 billion in economic-stimulus grants.

Confidentiality agreements kept Mr. Rex from disclosing specific queries that came from the judges. The superintendent said that the judges on the five-member review panel introduced themselves and that some of them had “national expertise.” He also said that some of the panel members, who have been cloaked in anonymity to the public, were familiar to him.

Mr. Rex, a Democrat who is running for governor, expressed confidence that his team’s session had gone well, and he boasted that “we weren’t sponsored by any particular foundation,” obviously referring to South Carolina’s distinction as one of only two finalist states (Delaware is the other) that did not receive a $250,000 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help prepare its application. South Carolina also didn’t receive an invitation from the Aspen Institute to rehearse its presentation, as some states did.

“We didn’t have a high-priced consultant,” Mr. Rex said. “This is our proposal. We own it.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2010 edition of Education Week


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