Education Funding

Race to Top Winners Press Ahead, Despite Pushback

By Sean Cavanagh — December 02, 2010 7 min read

States are pushing ahead with efforts to make sweeping changes to education policy through the Race to the Top program, despite some of them having seen individual schools and districts back out of the process because of concerns over the time and money required to make those plans a reality.

While some of the winning states in the $4 billion competition were able to keep all their local participants on board, others, such as Ohio and Massachusetts, have seen schools and districts peel off and give up their right to a slice of federal cash.

All of the winners in the second round of the federal competition—nine states and the District of Columbia—were required to turn in detailed blueprints explaining how they will carry out their plans to the U.S. Department of Education by Nov. 22. (“Ambitious Race to Top Plans Put School Districts on Spot,” Oct. 13, 2010.) Those plans include “scope of work” documents from local participants.

Most states said their local commitments had largely held firm. But some saw schools and districts back away, as local officials questioned whether they could carry out state plans, or objected to core elements of those plans.

Local Buy-In

Winning Race to the Top states had mixed success in keeping local schools and districts on board as they submitted detailed plans to the federal government.

OHIO
$400 million grant
Fifty of the state’s 538 original participating schools and districts jumped ship. Many local plans were approved conditionally, meaning they will have to make improvements to receive their share of federal money in years two to four of the program.

MASSACHUSETTS
$250 million
Of 276 original participants, 257 are still on board. The federal share of money that those schools and districts that opted out would have received varied greatly, from $168,000 for one participant to nothing in others.

NORTH CAROLINA
$400 million
All of the state’s 115 school districts remain on board. In addition, 33 of 51 charter schools that were eligible for Race to the Top money submitted “scope of work” plans, state officials say.

MARYLAND
$250 million
All 22 of the state’s original participating districts submitted necessary documents to the state. The state’s plan calls for creating a new system for evaluating teachers and administrators, and more-targeted assistance to struggling rural and urban schools.

SOURCE: Education Week

The school districts opting out included the Jones County School System, in Georgia, where teachers and administrators harbored lingering questions about the fairness of the merit pay plan included in their state’s winning, $400 million application. The district will forego its $1.3 million share of federal cash.

“I support the process and schools taking part in it,” said William C. Mathews, superintendent of the 5,800-student system. “It works for a lot districts. It just didn’t work for us.”

When it comes to changing how the district evaluates and pays teachers, he said, “it wasn’t enough money to tempt my principles.”

The Obama administration has envisioned Race to the Top, a $4 billion competitive grant program, as driving innovation in schools across the country by supporting new approaches to turning around struggling schools, paying and evaluating teachers and administrators, and crafting better and more uniform academic standards and tests across states, among other policies. In total, 12 winners were named in the two rounds of the competition, out of 46 states that submitted bids. (“Race to Top Now Faces Acid Test,” Sept. 1, 2010.) The two round-one winners, Delaware and Tennessee, submitted their detailed plans to Education Department earlier this year. ("$3.4 Billion Remains in Race to Top Fund,” April 7, 2010.)

Individual state awards range from $75 million to $700 million. At least half of the money in each state goes directly to local participants, who are charged with executing their state’s grand designs on the ground. A spokeswoman for U.S. Department of Education, Sandra Abrevaya, said last week that the agency was still reviewing state documents, and it was too early to comment on their “quality and content.”

Pushback in Ohio

In Ohio, 50 of the initial 538 districts and schools that were part of the state’s Race to the Top application have dropped out, foregoing their local share of the state’s $400 million award.

In some cases, the local entities cited concerns about the time and work involved, said Michael Sawyers, the state’s assistant superintendent of education. In other cases, they couldn’t muster the necessary agreement between the school board, union, and top school administrators over how to count student academic growth in teacher evaluation, as is required in Ohio’s plan. Local collective bargaining agreements, Mr. Sawyers noted, complicated the work in some communities.

Some Ohio schools opted out simply because they were about to close their doors permanently, Mr. Sawyers added, and so taking part in Race to the Top for a few months made no sense to them. Many of Ohio’s local participants were approved conditionally, meaning they’ll need to make modifications in order to continue taking part in years two through four of the program, said Julie Daubenmire, a spokeswoman for the state department of education.

Despite the drop-outs, Mr. Sawyers described state officials as “ecstatic” about the degree of local buy-in, given the challenges involved.

“We’re very proud,” he said. “This has been a lot of work in a short amount of time.”

One district that opted out of the state’s plan was the 7,700-student Brunswick City school system, south of Cleveland. District officials found a lot to like about Ohio’s Race to the Top proposal, but they were also concerned about teachers losing class time as they sought to plan and implement the state’s blueprint, said Joelle Magyar, assistant superintendent for the school system.

“It wasn’t something we thought we’d be able to do in the time provided for us,” she said.

While the district would have received $309,000 over four years, it also might have had to hire another lead-teacher or administrator to help execute it, Ms. Magyar noted.

Additionally, the Brunswick City system already uses teacher evaluation and mentoring approaches that bear similarities to the Race to the Top model that Ohio proposed, so district officials did not believe they would lose out in those areas by opting out, she noted.

Ohio’s Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, has voiced concerns that the man who defeated him in the Nov. 2 election, Republican John Kasich, would jeopardize the state’s Race to the Top funding if he did away with his predecessor’s school funding formula. Mr. Strickland says the funding model was crucial to the state’s winning bid. But Mr. Sawyers believes that issue will not imperil the state’s cash award, because the state’s Race to the Top reforms “stand alone,” and the core of the plan is intact.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, Justin Hamilton, said recently that states that make “significant alterations” to their Race to the Top plans could risk losing their pots of federal cash. But he declined to speculate on how far states could go in changing those blueprints before crossing the line.

Holding Steady

In Georgia, 26 school districts remain on board, the same number that were originally included in the state’s winning, $400 million proposal. While the state lost the Jones County school system, it has picked up a commitment from another district, pending federal approval, said Matt Cardoza, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Education.

Mr. Mathews, the Jones County schools chief, said he had concerns about elements of Georgia’s Race to the Top plan that tie teacher pay to performance, based partly on test scores. He sees little evidence that merit pay produces gains in student achievement, a common criticism of those compensation models. District leaders had hoped that the plan would allow more flexibility in evaluating teachers—and perhaps rewarding all school employees, not just teachers—but when they realized it didn’t, district officials decided to back away.

“The research I’m familiar with says that’s not really a sound approach for motivating teachers, or improving student performance,” Mr. Mathews said of linking teacher pay to test scores. “It’s so difficult, in our business, to say why a child achieved.”

In Florida, which won a $700 million Race to the Top award, 65 of the state’s 67 traditional school districts had initially agreed to take part in the state’s plan, and 62 have committed to continue, said Tom Butler, a spokesman for the state’s department of education, in an e-mail. The state’s winning application, among other features, includes a new model of evaluating and paying teachers, and gives local school systems some leeway in crafting those schemes.

Three districts—in Dixie, Hamilton, and Suwannee counties—have opted out. As is the case in Ohio, a number of Florida school systems received conditional approval from the state, Mr. Butler explained, meaning they will be asked to fix aspects of them.

In Massachusetts, 276 school districts originally had signed on to the state’s winning, $250 million proposal, but 19 have dropped out, leaving 257.

On the one hand, among the school systems that asked out of the state’s plan, concerns about the costs of implementing it were the “dominant calculus,” said Mitchell D. Chester, the state’s commissioner of education. Many of those participants, he noted, were slated to receive small amounts of federal money—in some cases $20,000 or $80,000—and some would have received nothing.

Yet Mr. Chester also said that some of Massachusetts’ remaining participants are scheduled to receive no direct federal cash through the program, but decided to take part anyway, because they’re convinced “it’s the right work to do.” Those districts could benefit indirectly from the Race to the Top money that flows directly to the state, he added.

The Massachusetts official predicted that some aspects of the state’s plans, such as encouraging districts to follow more demanding standards for preparation for college and the workforce, will be easier to implement than others, such as the newly proposed system for evaluating teachers. A task force created by the state’s board of education is examining how the evaluation system might be tied to compensation.

“That represents a major cultural shift for most districts,” Mr. Chester said of the evaluation system.

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.

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