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States Skeptical About ‘Race to Top’ School Aid Contest

Ohanian Comment: One could hope the Colorado governor has learned something, but when the motive is money, learning is probably impossible. The scoring of Race to the Top applications may have been "inscrutable," but the rotten premise of the whole scheme certainly is not.

Interesting that Dillon identifies Education Reform Now as a "National Advocacy Group." I can think of a few other descriptors for an outfit that characterizes the concerns of rural educators as "unholy," but will just point out that you can know them by their friends. Here are the outfits for whom their site has hot links:

  • The Center for Education Reform

  • Core Knowledge Foundation

  • School Choices

  • Education Reform Index: Arthur Hu Online

  • The Thomas B. Fordham Foundation

  • Heartland Institute

  • Pacific Research Institute


  • Van Shoales is a former board member of the board of Charter School Institute and Urban Education Program Officer of the Piton Foundation, a private foundation established in 1976 by Denver oil man Sam Gary.

    Hmph! Since Dillon give American Enterprise Institute no descriptor, I'll provide a reminder. AEI is funded by Coors, Scaife, Olin, and Bradley foundations and by two score of giant corporations representing the oil, auto, insurance, food, tobacco, and telecom industries, its stated mission is "to defend the principles and improve the institutions of American freedom and democratic capitalism. . . ." More than two dozen AEI alumni served in the Bush administration or on its commissions.

    By Sam Dillon

    A dozen governors, led by Bill Ritter Jr. of Colorado, sat with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a hotel ballroom in Washington a few weeks back, praising his vision and gushing with enthusiasm over a $4 billion grant competition they hoped could land their states a jackpot of hundreds of millions of dollars.

    But for many of those governors, the contest lost some sizzle last week, when Mr. Duncan awarded money to only two states -- Delaware and Tennessee.

    Colorado, which had hoped to win $377 million, ended in 14th place. Now Mr. Ritter says the scoring by anonymous judges seemed inscrutable, some Coloradans view the contest as federal intrusion and the governor has not decided whether to reapply for the second round.

    "It was like the Olympic Games, and we were an American skater with a Soviet judge from the 1980s," Mr. Ritter said.

    Colorado is not the only state where the initial results of the Obama administration's signature school improvement initiative, known as Race to the Top, have left a sour taste. Many states are questioning the criteria by which winners were chosen, wondering why there were only two that won and criticizing a last-minute cap on future awards.

    Besides Colorado, a string of other states â including Arizona, California, Nebraska, South Carolina and South Dakota -- say they have not yet decided whether to keep participating.

    "There's a serious conversation going on here about whether it makes sense to put all that time and effort in again to reapply," said Rick Miller, who as deputy schools superintendent led California's first-round Race to the Top effort. He has since left state government.

    Officials from several states criticized the scoring of the contest, which favored states able to gain support from 100 percent of school districts and local teachersâ unions for Obama administration objectives like expanding charter schools, reworking teacher evaluation systems and turning around low-performing schools.

    Marshalling such support is one thing for a tiny state like Delaware, with 38 districts, they said, and quite another for, say, California, with some 1,500.

    Administration officials say they consider last weekâs outcome a splendid success. By awarding only $100 million to Delaware and $500 million to Tennessee, Mr. Duncan retained $3.4 billion to dole out to up to 15 winning states in September, weeks before the midterm elections -- a political bonus that officials insist is mere serendipity.

    Mr. Duncan says the administration won victories months before the results were announced, when a dozen states rewrote education laws in ways the administration had recommended. Michigan, for instance, passed laws permitting state takeovers of failing schools and tying teacher evaluations to studentsâ test scores.

    Such legislative changes laid only the groundwork for states to undertake more far-reaching overhauls of educator evaluation systems and low-performing schools that are the heart of the administrationâs school reform strategy.

    Frederick Hess, a director at the American Enterprise Institute, said that the changes would require years of work and that the administration would need broad cooperation from a majority of states.

    "This administration has had billions in stimulus dollars to buy support," Mr. Hess said. "After that money is spent, further success with reform will depend on good working relationships with states. That is why all this grumbling matters."

    When 40 states and the District of Columbia submitted proposals for Race to the Top grants in January, federal officials were delighted. And they say they do not want any to opt out.

    Sixteen finalists were named on March 4, and governors from seven of those states traveled to Washington to face videotaped questioning by contest judges.

    Mr. Duncan called all 15 governors on March 29 to inform them of the two winners.

    "I didn't know how those calls would go," Mr. Duncan said. "You know, you never want to call folks with bad news. And I couldn't have been more impressed with their commitment and their desire to take the next step in Round 2."

    Joanne Weiss, an aide to Mr. Duncan who is administering the competition, said she and her staff were working hard to persuade states to improve their proposals for the second round. "But it'll be up to them, of course, to decide whether itâs worth their time and resources," Ms. Weiss said.

    A new rule capping award money, which is to be spent over four years, is causing states to waver. California, which requested $1 billion, can now only hope to win $700 million. Louisiana, which asked for $314 million, is now capped at $175 million, as is Colorado.

    South Carolina, which hoped to win $300 million, came in sixth and is now capped at $175 million.

    "That's a lot of money, and we need it," said the stateâs superintendent of education, Jim Rex. "But spread it over four years, with all the federal expectations that come with it, and you have to ask whether you have the time and capacity to gear up again for the arduous work of filing a new proposal. We're still weighing that."

    Florida has already decided to reapply, said Eric Smith, the state's education commissioner. But because the state built its proposal around a $1.1 billion award and its new limit is $700 million, Florida will have to rethink its plan, he said.

    "It's a pretty significant reduction," Mr. Smith said. Delaware's $100 million prize gave that state $807 for each of its 124,000 students, Mr. Smith said. With the new cap, Florida can aspire to receive only $266 for each student, he said.

    In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger fought hard to help win passage of several new education laws favored by Mr. Duncan, but the state received little or no credit for those victories in the scoring, said Kathy Gaither, the stateâs undersecretary of education.

    "These reforms that were so difficult, politically, didnât generate any points," she said. "There was just no room in the application or the scoring rubric for them."

    During a conference call on Thursday, representatives from 45 states questioned Ms. Weiss about the competition, including the scoring system, in which five reviewers read each state's proposal, allotting points under a 500-point rubric, before scores were averaged.

    One reviewer scored Michigan's application far lower than did four others, prompting Michigan's schools superintendent, Michael P. Flanagan, to also allude during the call to Soviet-style Olympic scorers -- as did Governor Ritter.

    Ms. Weiss said that such outlier scores were investigated to ensure that reviewers who made them had a solid rationale, based on sincere disagreement about a proposal's merit, rather than on any misunderstanding, which satisfied Mr. Flanagan, he said.

    "In fairness, I think the feds had a good explanation," Mr. Flanagan said.

    In Colorado, Van Schoales, executive director of Education Reform Now, a national advocacy group that supports Colorado's participation in the competition, said the new award limit had strengthened the hand of teachersâ unions and rural school boards that, in opposing further participation, denounce federal intrusion.

    "I'm surprised to see that there is a growing tide of people, an unholy alliance between unions and rural educators, who want us to say no to reapplying," Mr. Schoales said.

    Governor Ritter said in an interview that Colorado had lost points because the state had been unable to persuade about 40 of its 178 districts to participate in the contest, a factor he said he might not be able to change.

    "People judging our application may not have appreciated that in the West there is a great deal of local control," he said. "Many tiny school districts donât like federal mandates. So even as I believe that school reform is important for our country, it's also important that people in Washington understand that one size doesnât fit all."

    — Sam Dillon
    New York Times
    2010-04-05
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/05/education/05top.html?emc=tnt&tntemail1=y


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