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Education Reporter

Districts Spurn Race to Top Funding
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Race to the Top (RTT) is a competitive grant program that will award more than $4 billion to schools that agree to implement elements of the Obama administration's comprehensive reform proposal. Despite the potential for federal dollar infusions into schools coping with painful budget cuts, hundreds of school districts and charter schools refused to support their states in the application process.

Louisiana, widely considered a leading contender for the grant money, only nailed down firm commitments from 28 of its more than 65 districts. California has more than 1,800 school districts and charter schools; only 790 of its local education agencies had signed on to the grant bid shortly before the January 18th deadline.

Texas Governor Rick Perry completely withdrew his state from the application process, declaring that the program "smacks of a federal takeover of our public schools." Perry and Education Commissioner Robert Scott said taking the money would require adherence to national education and testing standards, and would result in Texas losing its autonomy in educating children. (Associated Press, 1-14-09)

States vying for RTT funding are judged in part on buy-in from local school officials, including school superintendents, school board presidents, and teachers' union leaders. Out of a total of 500 possible application points, 45 are specifically tied to the breadth of support states have secured from local education leaders.

School officials who declined to back their states' applications for RTT funding named various reasons for their opposition, including excessive federal intrusion and program requirements that would cost more to implement than the grant would cover. "We just don't agree that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to improving our schools," said David Britten, superintendent of a lower-income district near Grand Rapids, Michigan. "And frankly, " he added, "for $50,000 a year for four years, . . . we'd have to do an awful lot of funny things for just a little bit of money."

Some California education leaders who refused to get on board with their state's plan complained that they were left out of planning sessions and lacked sufficient details about the proposal they were being asked to sign. "The state hadn't completed its plan, and we didn't know how much we might be getting from the grant, so we couldn't do any real cost-benefit analysis," said Bernie Rhinerson, spokesman for the 117,000-student San Diego Unified system. "The district just decided that we couldn't sign a blank check," he said.

Other school boards simply disagreed with policies promoted in the state plans, as did many unions. In Michigan, only 42 locals out of approximately 600 agreed to support the state's plan, according to Martin Ackley, spokesman for the state's education department. Florida had substantial district support (59 out of 67), but only five local unions backed the state's proposal.

In contrast, all of Kentucky's 174 districts committed their support. Andy Smarick, distinguished visiting fellow with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, believes that is because the state's reform plan was less aggressive than other states. Kentucky education commissioner Terry Holliday made considerable efforts to get feedback from stakeholders across Kentucky, according to spokeswoman Lisa Gross. Incorporating all of that input from state education leaders, particularly those who oppose charter schools, resulted in a watered-down plan that everyone could support.

"The state passed a weak legislative 'reform' package in the last several days, hoping to position itself for an RTT grant," wrote Mr. Smarick in a January 13th blog post. "But the state, one of the few left without a charter law, considered and rejected an amendment that would have authorized charters." Expansion of charter schools is one of RTT's primary reform strategies, and states will be awarded application points accordingly.

It remains to be seen whether the Obama administration will respond more favorably to states promising to implement more aggressive reforms or to states that have greater levels of support from districts, school boards and unions. RTT funds will be awarded in two phases; first-round grant winners are expected to be named in April. (Education Week, 1-20-2010)

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