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Education Funding

Losing States in Race to Top Scramble to Meet Promises

By Michele McNeil — February 22, 2011 7 min read
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As the winners in the Race to the Top competition start spending their $4 billion in grant money, the U.S. Department of Education’s first such education reform contest has left nearly three dozen losing states with ambitious blueprints and no federal cash to put them into action.

In these tough budget times, states that failed to receive a Race to the Top award are scrounging for state funds to implement education overhaul promises they made in their grant applications, raising private money, and taking stock of what really needs to get done.

What happens now in the 35 states that applied and came away empty-handed may vary greatly, but many report they intend to stick with their plans even if it means accomplishing the promised changes at a far slower pace. Still others are asking whether they can—or even want to—fulfill the commitments they made as part of the federal contest that became a trademark of the Obama administration’s education agenda. Some states are stuck with laws enacted as part of the competition that they aren’t sure they can carry out.

Complicating the tasks in many states are big changes in state leadership in the wake of last fall’s elections. The governors and state education chiefs who wrote the Race to the Top applications in some cases are not in office anymore.

A case in point is South Carolina, which was a finalist in both rounds of the Race to the Top and could have received $175 million. Superintendent of Education Mick Zais is “holding detailed and comprehensive meetings with agency staff as the first steps toward determining which initiatives he wants to maintain from the previous administration,” according to spokesman Jim Foster. Mr. Zais replaces Jim Rex, who mounted an unsuccessful run for governor and did not seek re-election to his education post.

‘Things Are Going to Be Tight’

During two rounds of competition for $4 billion in aid provided under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, states crafted their most ambitious proposals in four areas: improvement of data systems, teacher effectiveness, standards and assessments, and low-performing schools.

Interactive Chart

Competitive Stimulus Grants: Winners and Losers

Two years after Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, nearly $100 billion in economic-stimulus aid for education has been handed out—including nearly $5.3 billion as part of six grant competitions. The grants ranged from money under the high-profile Race to the Top program for states to a lesser-known competition to award emergency construction aid to school districts.

Ten states and their districts did not receive any competitive funding. Of those that did, Florida and New York come out on top in terms of total dollars. On a per-student basis, the District of Columbia, Delaware, and Tennessee were big winners.

View this interactive chart >


SOURCES: Education Week; U.S. Department of Education

Many states passed legislation in hopes of strengthening their applications—expanding their charter school sectors in places like New York and Iowa, tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, as in Colorado and Louisiana, and promising to adopt common academic standards in 40-plus states. And some of that legislation came with big price tags, such as Connecticut’s $300 million plan to require more Advanced Placement classes in high school and better data tracking of students. (“ARRA Brings Home Mixed Report Card,” Feb. 9, 2011.)

And states can’t count on more money from Congress for a second iteration of the Race to the Top, even though it’s a priority for the Obama administration, which also has proposed opening the competition to districts in future years.

In a report released last week by the Center on Education Policy, a policy-analysis group in Washington, at least 16 states that lost out in the competition said they planned to stick with their Race to the Top proposals, even without the federal money they were hoping for.

“I think it’s good news for the country,” said the center’s president, Jack Jennings. Rather than a “scattershot” approach to education improvement, he said, “it shows the states and the federal government are on the same page.”

However, those states indicated it would take longer to accomplish their goals. And at least 12 states said they didn’t know whether they’d pursue their plans at all. (The states’ names were kept confidential as part of the survey process.)

In Kentucky, officials are forging ahead with a major revamping of the state’s assessment and accountability system, which began with a new law in 2009 and became the cornerstone of the state’s Race to the Top application. The state was hoping to win up to $175 million. “We never counted on that money,” said Lisa Gross, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education. “Things are going to be tight.”

To help pay the $40 million cost this year of implementing its new assessment system, the department intercepted $2.6 million that’s used for professional development in the state’s 174 school districts.

“Districts don’t care for that, but we really don’t have a choice,” Ms. Gross said.

The state may also have to cut funding for the staff working with low-performing schools, which would have been paid for with Race to the Top dollars.

In addition, the state secured a $1 million grant from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for another element in the its Race to the Top application: providing teachers training and resources in math and reading aligned with the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which includes a majority of states.

In Illinois, which had hoped for up to $400 million in Race to the Top funds, state leaders and education advocates are turning to outside funders. As part of the state’s application, which put in writing many of the efforts already under way, officials wanted to invest in improving college preparation programs for teachers and school leaders, especially those who will work in high-need schools. The state has now secured $1 million each in pledges from the Chicago Community Trust and New York City-based Teach For America.

To help pay for a proposed a kindergarten-readiness assessment, also included in Illinois’ Race to the Top application, state officials have raised $50,000 from the Chicago-based McCormick Foundation. In addition, the state is kicking in $1.5 million from an existing pot of money dedicated to early learning.

And the state is in talks with other philanthropies in hopes of raising more money for other initiatives, said Matt Vanover, a spokesman for the state board of education.

But even then, advocates acknowledge that Illinois, at some point, must find its own money to continue programs such as a kidergarten-readiness assessment.

“The money helps get things started. But you cannot support a kindergarten-readiness program statewide on private dollars,” said Robin Steans, the executive director of Advance Illinois, a school advocacy group that helped with the state’s Race to the Top application.

In the face of a state budget deficit that reached as high as $15 billion for next fiscal year, Ms. Steans said the state is committed to using the Race to the Top application as the “guiding blueprint.”

But some components will be much more difficult than others.

Consider the state’s “Learning Performance Management System,” a new data system compatible with the state’s 870 districts that would provide timely data to teachers so they could tailor lessons to the individual needs of students. The price tag for the system, according to the state’s Race to the Top application, is at least $45 million. Still, state officials remain committed to the project, even if it takes longer to accomplish.

“That’s a big-ticket item that’s hard to do incrementally,” Ms. Steans said. “That’s going to be the toughest.”

In Colorado, which applied in both rounds of the competition and was favored by many education policy observers to win, implementing the Race to the Top plan without the money is tough,and the still-sour economy makes it tougher. Recently inaugurated Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, has proposed cutting K-12 education by $375 million, as part of his $7.2 billion budget request. The state’s Race to the Top award could have reached $175 million.

State education officials are not deterred from implementing their plan, much of which is now in statute, including a plan to tie teacher evaluations to student academic-achievement growth.

“I think we were absolutely genuine about this being the right plan for us,” said Nina Lopez, a special assistant to Colorado Commissioner of Education Robert Hammond.

But many parts of the plan cost money—such as training teachers to employ new content standards, building a sophisticated new data system, and training teachers and administrators in how to use it.

That means the state is going to look for opportunities to collaborate with other states to save money, such as in devising curricula for the new common-core standards. And Colorado secured $1.9 million in grants from the Gates Foundation and local foundations to pick up a small portion of the tab, to “keep the momentum going,” Ms. Lopez said.

But it’s not just the loss of money that stings. Ms. Lopez pointed out that the Race to the Top winners get to attend technical-assistance workshops with federal officials for help in carrying out their plans. The losers don’t have that opportunity, either. “I’m sorry there aren’t better mechanisms to aggregate what we’re doing, because we’re all doing a lot of the same things,” Ms. Lopez said.

Coverage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is supported in part by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, at www.hewlett.org, and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, at www.mott.org.
A version of this article appeared in the February 23, 2011 edition of Education Week as States Left Out of Race to Top Cash Face Hurdles


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