States Submit Race to Top Plans, and Work to Keep Districts on Board

By Sean Cavanagh — November 24, 2010 3 min read
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States faced a federal deadline this week to submit plans describing how they would carry out their Race to the Top plans, including detailed descriptions of their local buy-in from schools and districts. Early reports indicate that the buy-in has held firm in some states, and fallen off a bit in others.

All 10 round-two winners in the competition turned in plans on time, including required “scope of work” documents from participating local districts, said Sandra Abrevaya, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education. She said it was too early to gauge the “quality and content” of those plans, since the agency will need time to look them over.

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. The state’s winning application, among its other features, includes a new model of evaluating and paying teachers, and gives local school systems some leeway in crafting those schemes. When the state turned in its plan this week, 62 of the original 65 districts are still on board, Tom Butler, a spokesman for the the state’s department of education, said in an e-mail. Three districts—in Dixie, Hamilton, and Suwannee counties—have opted out. A number of other Florida school systems received conditional approval from the state, he explained, meaning their local plans have correctable flaws that they’ll be asked to fix.

In Ohio, 50 of the initial 538 participating districts and schools have dropped out, meaning they’ll forgo their local share of the state’s $400 milion award. In some cases, the local entities cited concerns about the time and work involved, Michael Sawyers, the state’s assistant superintendent of education, told me. In other cases, local officials could not 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. Llocal collective bargaining agreements, Sawyers noted, complicated the work in some communities.

In addition, some Ohio schools said no thanks because they’re about to close their doors—and so taking part in Race to the Top for just a couple months didn’t make sense, he said.

Despite the drop-outs, Sawyers said Ohio officials are “ecstatic” about the overall level of participation.

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

As was the case in Florida, many of Ohio’s local participants’ applications were approved conditionally. That means their plans for year one of Race to the Top were given the state’s blessing, but they’ll need to make modifications for years 2-4, said Julie Daubenmire, a spokeswoman for the state department of education.

Ohio’s Democratic governor, Ted Strickland, has voiced concerns that the man who will replace him in office, Republican John Kasich, would jeaporadize the state’s Race to the Top funding if he did away his predecessor’s school funding formula. Strickland says the funding model was crucial to the state’s winning bid.

But 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 earlier this week 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.

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

The Nov. 22 deadline only applied to round-two winners. The round-one champs, Delaware and Tennessee, met their own deadlines earlier this year.

If local participants that don’t submit “scopes of work,” to the states, which then go to the feds, they aren’t allowed to receive their share of Race to the Top funds. In theory, if enough local districts drop out, the winning states’ funding could be imperiled, federal officials have said.

Maryland officials say they met the deadline, though I don’t have a district count. Hawaii, which has only one school district, turned in its plans, too.

Going through the process of submitting documents on deadline, said Bob Campbell, of the Hawaii’s Office of Strategic Reform, was a reminder of “the complexity and enormity of the work ahead.”

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