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States Scramble for Coveted Dollars

By Michele McNeil — July 24, 2009 4 min read
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Now that states know how they may be judged in the $4 billion Race to the Top competition, education leaders are scrambling to figure out how they measure up against the education reform criteria spelled out by the U.S. Department of Education.

Even tougher, they say, will be crafting the kind of comprehensive, game-changing proposal that both President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are demanding in exchange for a Race to the Top grant. And states have just three months to figure all of this out if they want to make the application deadline for phase-one grants.

“This requires a comprehensive plan, done very quickly, and it’s not going to be easy,” said Massachusetts Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester, whose state is considered an early front-runner for Race to the Top grants.

On Friday, President Obama officially kicked off Race to the Top, challenging governors, state education chiefs, and other education policy leaders to come up with plans that “put the interests of our children ahead of our own parochial interests.”

“This competition will not be based on politics or ideology or the preferences of a particular interest group. Instead, it will be based on a simple principle—whether a state is ready to do what works,” Mr. Obama said in a speech at the Education Department. “Not every state will win, and not every school district will be happy with the results.”

Race to the Top is a $4.35 billion piece of the $100 billion in education aid that is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act—a competitive grant competition that federal education leaders hope will spur significant reform.

The Education Department on Friday spelled out the 19 criteria it is proposing to use to judge states—from how they fund charter schools to whether they’ve climbed aboard a national push for common academic standards.

Only two things, though, automatically take states out of the running: not getting their State Fiscal Stabilization Fund application approved by the department (this won’t likely be a factor for any state), and having a law that bars linking student data to teacher-evaluation decisions.

Legislators’ Opposition

David Shreve, an education analyst with the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures, took exception to what he called the Race to the Top’s emphasis on process over student achievement.

“The attitude seems to be that if something like charter schools works in one state, then it should be in all states,” said Mr. Shreve, pointing to Maryland, which is known for high student achievement but doesn’t have a strong charter climate. In fact, state lawmakers yesterday approved a resolution at the annual NCSL meeting opposing a linkage between a state’s charter school law and its eligibility for federal grant money.

Still, charter schools remain a key piece of the Obama administration’s school improvement agenda.

Several states, many with strong charter school laws, have jumped out as early contenders for the grants. Mr. Duncan, in remarks at the kick-off event, singled out Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Tennessee for taking steps to encourage charter school growth.

Mr. Obama also named Massachusetts, but for its high academic standards.

Florida is also likely a top contender. Eric J. Smith, its education commissioner, was a guest speaker to illustrate the success of his state’s comprehensive, multi-layered data system.

But even states that are thought to be front-runners aren’t taking anything for granted. Mr. Chester said it will be a challenge to demonstrate the kind of support for his state’s plan that Mr. Duncan and his staff envision. The criteria ask states to show they have support from a slew of stakeholders, from local school districts and charter school authorizers to teachers’ union leaders and business leaders.

Getting that much consensus in such a short period of time, Mr. Chester said, means states run the risk of having to “water down” their proposals.

Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett said his state is shooting to make the deadline for the phase-one applications, having staved off efforts during this year’s legislative session to place a cap on charter schools and having successfully removed a legal barrier that prevented student achievement data to be linked to teacher-evaluation decisions.

“People keep asking us why we’re moving so fast, and this [Race to the Top] is why,” said Mr. Bennett, who, like many education officials at the event, were still trying to make sense of the 81-page document outlining the department’s grant criteria.

Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, said at Friday’s event that she’s been frank with her constituents that her state may not be ready to apply during the first phase.

“We need to work to improve our teacher quality first,” Ms. Gregoire said. But, she added, leaving the Race to the Top grant dangling out there will give her leverage if she wants to pursue teacher compensation or other teacher-quality initiatives during her next legislative session.

A version of this article appeared in the August 12, 2009 edition of Education Week as States Scramble for Coveted Dollars

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