October 2009

State News: August 2009



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'Race to the Top' Standards Criticized

By Tim Weldon, CSG Education Policy Analyst
As competition heats up for $4 billion in the competitive Race to the Top educational grant program in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, some states are scrambling to change state laws and regulations in order to increase the odds of scoring the grants. That’s because some state laws as they stand now may disqualify states from the grant program.
The Race to the Top Fund is designed to encourage states to create innovative educational reform programs and reward those programs. In order for states to be eligible, they must have been approved for State Fiscal Stabilization funds under ARRA and must have no legal barriers to link student achievement data to teachers and principals for purposes of evaluation.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzeneggar scrambled to call a special session to consider enacting a package of education reforms that might improve the state’s chances to receive a slice of the pie. The state would not qualify for funding now because of a law that links student and teacher data. Other states—including New York, Wisconsin and Nevada—have similar laws.
States will also be graded on 19 other criteria, which include developing and implementing common, high-quality assessments; using data to improve instruction; increasing the number of charter schools; differentiating teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance; and closing achievement gaps.
It’s unclear how the standards will be weighed, but that announcement is expected this fall.
But with strings attached to the funding, and 19 criteria that will be used to measure states, The New Teacher Project—a national nonprofit group that partners with school districts and states to address teacher quality issues—concluded that only two states, Louisiana and Florida, actually have everything it takes to be highly competitive in Race to the Top competition. Thirteen states are considered competitive, 16 are considered somewhat competitive, and 17 states are ineligible, according to the group.
The guidelines have drawn criticism from several in the education community, and many of them were among 1,100 who commented on the criteria during the Education Department’s comment period that ended Aug. 28.
North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue is one of those critics.
“You have consistently stated that states having a cap on the number of charter schools are at a ‘competitive disadvantage’ for consideration of the ‘Race to the Top’ grant funding. Capping or not capping is not the issue; the issue is whether or not the charters and other schools are making progress to improving learning for all students,” she wrote. North Carolina law caps the number of charter schools at 100.
Vermont Education Commissioner Armando Vilaseca also wrote U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, claiming the expectations are not fair to small and rural states. Vilaseca said it is unrealistic to expect Vermont’s small schools, some with fewer than 100 students, to offer charter school options.
The National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers also criticized core elements of Race to the Top. Officials from local union affiliates made some of the sharpest criticisms, blasting provisions concerning merit pay and charter schools.
“But, if as proposed, Race to the Top criteria is a harbinger of things to come when you present your ideas on how Congress should reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, cynically labeled No Child Left Behind, then we are chilled to the bone and our opposition to Race to the Top grows exponentially,” Eric Feaver, president of the Montana Education Association—-Montana Federation of Teachers, wrote. He called on his state to not apply for the funding if the criteria remain.
However, the Rodel Foundation of Delaware, which supports that state’s public schools, wrote, “Hold the line. …This historic opportunity cannot be weakened by the whims of politics.”
In an editorial published in The Washington  Post, Duncan said Race to the Top is the equivalent of education reform’s moon shot. “Race to the Top marks a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the federal government to create incentives for far-reaching improvement in our nation’s schools,” he wrote.
States have two opportunities to apply for funding—in late 2009, with winners announced in early 2010, and spring 2010, with winners announced by September 2010. States that are ready to apply may do so in late 2009. Phase One winners will be announced in the first half of 2010. States that apply in Phase One but are not awarded grants may reapply for funding in Phase Two, with a deadline in spring 2010. The U.S. Department of Education will provide an additional $350 million in a separate Race to the Top competition later.

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