cashThe Obama administration on Nov. 12 is opening its competition for states to receive $5 billion in ‘Race to the Top’ education funding, but states have been jockeying for the new stimulus money even before the contest begins.

The grants will fund ideas that advance the administration’s education reform goals, such as easing the rules for charter schools or judging teachers based on student test scores. Applications are due in January, and the first round of grants will go out in April.

Fewer than half the states are likely to win the money, and several already have rewritten their education laws and cut deals with unions to boost their chances.

“States have been doing some things to get in the ballpark,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in an interview with an eSchool News wire service. “Now states have to think about how they win. We’re going to reward excellence here.”

President Barack Obama’s agenda is controversial. National teachers’ unions, typically Democratic allies, have chastised him for relying too heavily on test scores and charter schools when the administration first proposed rules for the competition.

Their criticism is tempered now. “The department worked really hard to find the right balance,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers.

Unions had argued that student achievement is much more than a score on a standardized test, in part because only about one-third of teachers teach subjects and grades that are actually tested.

In response, the Education Department changed the rules for the competition to say that teachers and principals must be judged on several different measures of student achievement, but test scores should play a significant role.

“I’m disappointed there’s still a lot of focus on test scores tied to individual teachers,” said Dennis Van Roekel, president of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association. “But I think as time moves forward, we’ll have opportunities to work on that. I think there’s more flexibility than there was before.”

He added: “I feel good that they opened the door a little. They didn’t open it far enough, but at least it’s open, and I appreciate that.”

Although the unions feel better about the competition, plenty of criticism remains. Some education groups say the rules don’t go far enough or miss the mark.

Saying test scores are “significant” leaves too much to interpretation, said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit think tank.

“I think you’ve got the right intentions, and you’ve got some positive movement,” Allen said. “But unless you’re willing to be strict and firm about your expectations and leave nothing up to interpretation, a lot of people will get money without having done very much.”

Duncan said states won’t be able to downplay or ignore test scores. “We’ve said `significant,'” he said. “We simply won’t reward folks that do that. We mean what we say.”

The Education Trust, a children’s advocacy group, said the contest doesn’t do enough to make sure poor and minority kids have good teachers. Those students are more likely to have teachers without a degree or certification in the subjects they teach.

The rules say poor and minority students should have equal access to “highly effective teachers,” which are defined as those whose students show high rates of academic growth.

But it will take time to figure out how to measure that growth, and even then, there is no guarantee it will work, said Amy Wilkins, a lobbyist for the trust. Instead, she said, officials should use information they have now–data such as which teachers majored or minored in their subjects, how they scored on state licensure exams, how many years of experience they have.

All those qualifications have been shown to make a difference, she said.

“They are ignoring those indicators that are within reach, that people have in their hands,” she said. “They didn’t give poor kids and kids of color access to strong teachers. When poor kids are taught by better teachers, they do much better.”

Joanne Weiss, the Education Department official who is overseeing the grants, said states will be rewarded for taking aggressive steps to ensure that schools with large numbers of minority and poor students have teachers who are just as effective as schools with wealthier students.

Charter schools and test scores fit into four broad goals that Obama wants states to pursue: tougher academic standards, better ways to recruit and keep effective teachers, a method of tracking student performance, and a plan of action to turn around failing schools.

States will have to meet a series of conditions to earn up to 500 points and boost their chances of receiving a grant.

Links:

Race to the Top Fund

American Federation of Teachers

National Education Association

Center for Education Reform

The Education Trust

Note to readers:

Don’t forget to visit the Stimulating Achievement resource center. Learn how to make wise spending decisions and keep track of school needs as stimulus funds become available. Go to: Stimulating Achievement