Special Report
Federal

Reassurance Offered on ‘Race to Top’ Availability

By Michele McNeil — December 15, 2009 3 min read

As states consider whether to apply for the first or second round of Race to the Top Fund grants under the economic-stimulus program, the U.S. Department of Education is emphasizing that they shouldn’t worry about being first in line to win a piece of the $4 billion being awarded.

“We promise there will be plenty of money left in phase two,” Joanne Weiss, the department’s Race to the Top director, told states gathered in the Baltimore area for a recent department-sponsored technical seminar on the competitive-grant program.

With the Jan. 19 deadline for the first round of applications just a month away, the Dec. 10 event was part of a stepped-up effort by the department to make sure states understand what is being asked of them—from the broad education improvement ideas they should be advancing to the narrow, technical details of how to fill in the blanks on the application.

So far, 36 states have filed letters with the department indicating they plan to apply in Round 1. To figure out how many peer reviewers will be needed, the department asked states to submit a letter if they intend to apply by the Jan. 19 deadline.

However, that list is just an indication of which states are making an early play for the money made available by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act; it doesn’t mean those states will apply, nor does it preclude states that aren’t on the list from applying.

States that let the Jan. 19 deadline pass without applying—or lose out in the first round—can apply again in the second round, for which applications are due June 1. Winners from Round 1 will be announced in April. Also at that time, losing states will get feedback from the judges on how to make their applications stronger for the second round.

Based on the dozens of questions at the recent seminar, it’s clear that there are many state-specific circumstances for which state teams want answers. (Another technical-assistance seminar was held in early December in Denver.)

A South Dakota official asked if American Indian-chartered schools count as charter schools even though the state doesn’t have a law authorizing such schools.

Hawaii officials had a few questions about how the application applies to them since they have a single, state-run school district.

In the area of common standards, New Hampshire officials wanted to know if that state’s participation in the New England Common Assessments Program, or NECAP, counts as much in earning points toward a grant as the larger Common Core State Standards Initiative. The NECAP consortium involves four states; the Common Core initiative includes 48 states. The Race to the Top competition doesn’t explicitly say that the Common Core effort is the only consortium available, but it is the largest ongoing effort.

States also wanted clarification on seemingly small, yet important, details in the Race to the Top guidelines. For example, the Race to the Top regulations say student growth should be a “significant” factor in teacher and principal evaluation for the maximum possible points (the application is scored on a 500-point scale). A representative from Arkansas asked what is meant by “significant.”

“We mean significant factor. We don’t like magic numbers here,” said Josh Bendor, who works on the department’s Race to the Top team.

There were also a number of questions from states about buy-in from teachers’ unions, with many state representatives making clear that they have concerns about how willing unions will be to support many of their education reform initiatives.

States are also concerned about how difficult it might be to get local school districts on board. Districts must sign up with a state to be entitled to their share of the Race to the Top money; some officials fear that requirement may result in a misguided incentive to see that fewer districts sign up, so the money won’t be spread so thin. (Half of each winning state’s Race to the Top grant will go to school districts based on the Title I formula for aid to disadvantaged students; the other half will be spent entirely at the state’s discretion.)

It’s also clear that some states don’t like the dollar-amount ranges that the Education Department has given as a guide for the Race to the Top competition.

Tennessee Commissioner of Education Timothy Webb said in an interview that his state is going to ignore those estimates, treat them merely as examples, and ask for more money. (Tennessee was in the category in which the maximum award is $150 million.)

“We’re taking that as just an example,” Mr. Webb said.

A version of this article appeared in the December 16, 2009 edition of Education Week as Reassurance Offered on ‘Race to Top’ Availability

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