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Education Reporter

States Scramble to Apply for Stimulus Money
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States are jockeying for position to win competitive grants from President Obama's Race to the Top funding initiative for K-12 schools. The program is part of the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, better known as the Stimulus, and will split $4.35 billion among 10-15 states. These discretionary funds are in addition to other federal monies slated for state education spending.

Final applications for the grants aren't yet available, but states are already scrambling to comply with preliminary requirements released over the summer. Grant criteria "reward States that have demonstrated their will and capacity" to meet Obama administration priorities of expanding charter schools, developing national academic standards, and evaluating teachers based on student assessment scores. Grant criteria also include longitudinal data-collection of student and teacher performance, as well as specific interventions for the worst-performing schools.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made clear in July that many states have legal barriers that put them at a "competitive disadvantage" or even make them ineligible to compete for the money. In response, at least eight states have lifted regulations that limit the growth of charter schools, including Ohio, Tennessee and Illinois. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called a special legislative session to rescind laws that ban linking student test scores to teacher evaluation, and Wisconsin is poised to reverse a similar law. Nevada would also need to reverse a law banning the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers to compete for the grant funds, but Gov. Jim Gibbons is reluctant to call a special legislative session just to change the law. The special session would cost the state about $100,000, and still there would be no guarantee Nevada would win any of the $4.35 billion dollar Race to the Top pot.

Unsurprisingly, teachers unions have offered some of the loudest objections to Race to the Top directives. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, voiced concerns about the initiative. "Data is important, and charter schools can be great incubators for instructional practice and labor relations practice, but if it ends up just becoming measurement and some charter schools, that's not public education," she said, adding, "that's what the previous administrations pushed."

In a 26-page response to the initial guidelines of the program, the National Education Association said it found the "top-down approach disturbing." The union also stated, "We have been down that road before with the failures of No Child Left Behind, and we cannot support yet another layer of federal mandates that have little or no research base of success, and that usurp state and local governments' responsibilities for public education."

Some education policy researchers are likewise disappointed with Race to the Top's emphases. Diane Ravitch, former assistant secretary for educational research under George H.W. Bush, commented, "What is extraordinary about these regulations is that they have no credible basis in research. They just happen to be the programs and approaches favored by the people in power."

Education scholars singled out two core aspects of the initiative as lacking research evidence: promoting the expansion of charter schools and evaluating teacher performance based on students' standardized test scores. While some recent research found that charter school students outperform their public school peers of like socioeconomic standing, other studies have indicated that charter schools vary widely in academic effectiveness. A Stanford University project headed by Margaret E. Raymond examined 2,403 charters in 15 states and the District of Columbia. That study concluded that 80% of students in charter schools performed the same as or worse than students in regular public schools on mathematics tests.

Caroline Hoxby, author of a different Stanford study that showed significant positive gains for charter school students in New York City, has suggested a possible explanation for the very different results. She believes Raymond's findings suffer from a "serious mathematical mistake." Hoxby explained that Raymond's study compared individual charter students' achievements with groups of students from nearby regular public schools, but failed to make the necessary statistical adjustments to account for natural downward biases inherent in that type of calculation. Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University said the reason for the different study results "could just be that New York's charter schools are better." (Education Week, 9-30-09)

Likewise, there is no consensus on whether teachers can be fairly evaluated by students' standardized test scores, and the teachers unions vehemently oppose this proposal. Helen Ladd, Duke University professor of public policy and education, is not convinced that "holding teachers accountable for their students' test scores will induce them to become better teachers." She said she was unaware of "any credible support of that proposition." Other education experts disagree. Thomas J. Kane submitted a comment letter on behalf of eight academics strongly supporting "the focus of the Race to the Top program on teacher effectiveness and achieving equity in distribution of effective teachers," though the letter also recommended some additions to the proposed criteria of the program.

The core reform themes of the Race to the Top proposal are unlikely to change much as the Department of Education finalizes the grant application, and unions are adjusting, even as they criticize the criteria. The AFT recently awarded its own innovation grants to encourage schools to develop new teacher compensation models that are tied to performance. National NEA leaders have directed local affiliates to allow high-need schools to hire top-notch teachers even when contract language prohibits such action. In October, a local teachers union in New Haven, Connecticut agreed almost unanimously to tougher job evaluations and more flexibility for firing substandard teachers. "This shows a willingness to go into areas that used to be seen as untouchable," remarked Secretary Duncan. (Wall Street Journal, 10-17-09)

Amy Wilkins, principal of the independent think tank Education Trust, explained the newly accommodating stance of some union members this way: "What we have now is a Democratic president who is using the words 'fire bad teachers,' so the labor movement is starting to say they want to get on the bus and help steer, rather than get run over by it." (Education Week, 10-7-09; Politico.com, 10-17-09).

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