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Education Funding

Race to Top Winners, Meeting in D.C., See Challenges Ahead

By Alyson Klein — September 16, 2010 3 min read
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The 12 Race to the Top grant winners sent delegations to the U.S. Department of Education this week to tweak their budgets for the federal grants, get answers to their questions—and celebrate.

But, in the midst of their excitement, officials from the 11 winning states and the District of Columbia that are splitting $4 billion in federal economic-stimulus grants, along with federal officials themselves, acknowledge that implementation isn’t going to be easy.

“What you’ve accomplished in your states collectively is the easy part,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the group at a Sept. 16 meeting. States will now have to “change behavior from the statehouse to the school and into the classroom,” and deal with thorny issues such as implementing new state data systems and creating new evaluation systems for teachers and principals.

Mr. Duncan said the department is aiming to change the way it works with states to make its technical assistance process, starting with Race to the Top, more collaborative and focused on states’ needs.

“I want our department to support your work and not to direct it,” he said. The secretary said he hoped state officials would “look forward to calls from the department. ... We’re committed to establishing a very different relationship with states … starting with Race to the Top.”

He opened the floor for questions, but got only one glowing comment from Eric J. Smith, the Florida education commissioner, who commended Mr. Duncan for “assembling a great team,” including staff who “respond to e-mails on Sunday nights.”

After Secretary Duncan spoke, representatives from the winning states, sometimes joined by members of their congressional delegations, took turns getting their pictures taken with him, as well as posing for one big group photo.

Work Ahead

Despite the congratulatory tone of the event, state officials are aware of the challenges in putting their plans into action. Hawaii, for instance, will be moving to get its data system up to snuff, said Kathryn Matayoshi, the superintendent of schools. At least six of the winning states will have new governors after the November election, and the District of Columbia will have a new mayor.

Deborah A. Gist, the commissioner of education in Rhode Island, said she is thrilled for the new resources being promised by the department. But she acknowledged the hard work in ensuring that Race to the Top doesn’t become “just another grant program. … We’re asking folks to redesign how [instruction] is delivered in our state.”

That may be particularly challenging, given that Rhode Island, like most states, is still coping with the economic downturn. Still, Ms. Gist is confident the Race to the Top money won’t be used to fill budget holes. “We have very specific plans in place for our districts,” which they signed off on, she said. “There isn’t room for any diversion.”

Rhode Island Gov. Donald L. Carcieri, a Republican, was on the panel that presented the state’s plan to the U.S. Department of Education. But he is term-limited out, and neither candidate vying to replace him has specifically endorsed the state’s Race to the Top plan.

“It’s obviously going to be a transition,” Ms. Gist said. “I have to hope whoever our governor is [will] understand” the importance of the program.

Ohio’s governor, Ted Strickland, a Democrat, also participated in his state’s Race to the Top presentation. His Republican challenger, former U.S. Rep. John Kasich, hasn’t signed off on the plan.

But Deborah S. Delisle, the state schools chief, said she is optimistic that Ohio will be able to implement its plan, since it relies partly on legislation backed by a bipartisan group of state lawmakers.

Timothy Webb, the commissioner of education in Tennessee, which received a grant in the first round of the competition, said his state is just now getting feedback on how its students performed on new assessments, tied to more rigorous standards.

“Right now, we’re dealing with shock and awe,” he said, because the Volunteer State went from having “D-plus” standards to “B-level” standards. But he said he hopes the work the state is doing now will smooth the process later on, when Tennessee must rework its assessments and standards yet again as part of its participation in the Common Core State Standards Initiative.

Tennessee is a “governing” state for the Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, one of two consortia that received a slice of a $350 million fund aimed at helping states create more uniform, richer assessments, so it may have to adjust to a new test again over the next few years, Mr. Webb said.

A version of this article appeared in the September 22, 2010 edition of Education Week

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