North Carolina Wins over Districts on Race to Top

By Sean Cavanagh — December 03, 2010 2 min read
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This week, I wrote about winning states in the federal Race to the Top competition, and their wheedling and work to keep local districts on board with their plans. One state I touched base with, after my deadline had come and gone, was North Carolina, where officials have apparently convinced all their districts and many charter schools to stick it out despite their questions about the federal program.

The Tar Heel state, which secured a $400 million award, managed to maintain all 115 of its original school districts’ commitments. In addition, 33 of 51 charter schools that were eligible for a local share of the federal money signed up, according to the state.

North Carolina officials staged technical assistance meetings around the state and assuaged local officials who had concerns about Race to the Top, superintendent June Atkinson told me. To the extent there were doubts, most focused on whether the amount of federal cash they stood to receive would cover the local costs of implementing the plans—a common question in other winning states.

While Atkinson acknowledged that the federal funds wouldn’t cover all local expenses, she also says she brought a strong argument to her discussions with local officials: RTT aligns with the state’s overall short- and long-term educational priorities. In other words, by improving their operations in areas such as data collection, they would be helping themselves meet state and local academic priorities in the long run.

“We emphasized that it would allow our state to go farther and faster,” Atkinson said of the RTT plan. “The key is the alignment between the state board’s mission and objectives and Race to the Top. That was a huge selling point.”

North Carolina’s plan says that the state will commit to expanding the use of data, including student achievement in evaluating teachers and principals. The plan will also require participating districts to agree to take much stronger steps to turn around low-performing schools, which could include replacing leadership, accepting help from outside “transformation coaches,” and submitting to state oversight, depending on their academic performance, according to the plan.

North Carolina’s money will also be used to connect the state’s districts through a “cloud computing” project, designed to move technology resources to centralized servers and deliver information rapidly to districts when needed. It’s an alternative to every district having to buy and maintain their own technology, and an option state officials believe will save school systems significant cash.

Like many states, North Carolina is struggling financially, and its schools have weathered deep budget cuts. Atkinson acknowledged a “paradox” in the state using federal money to invest in technology as the state is struggling to preserve small class sizes and save jobs. But she predicted the federal dollars will streamline the state’s and districts’ use of technology and data systems for years to come.

“We have to build capacity and improve our [infra]structure in the long run,” she said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.