States that lost school money face reform dilemmas

Many states won't be able to implement their reform plans.

It’s like buying a fancy dress but having no date to the prom–dozens of states that crafted new education policies to compete for a share of the $3.4 billion “Race to the Top” school reform grant prizes were shut out.

Now, as the 11 winning states and the District of Columbia set about spending their awards, the losing states are left wondering what to do with ambitious reform plans they planned to fund with the money.

In Colorado, for example, lawmakers had the prize in mind earlier this year when they adopted a contentious plan to pay teachers based on student performance. Now, state educators are obligated to come up with a new evaluation for teachers–with no new money to pay for it.

“There was no Plan B for paying for these changes when they were rushing to get them for ‘Race to the Top,'” said Henry Roman, an elementary school teacher in Denver and head of the city’s teachers union.

“People have great ideas for reforming education, and we welcome that, but these great ideas need to be matched by resources,” Roman said. “Our principals are really exhausted, and now they’re being required to do more–with no support.”

Many states are in the same boat. Almost 30 states tried to make themselves more attractive to federal “Race to the Top” judges by highlighting new laws or policies on charter schools, teacher evaluations, and how to turn around low-performing schools.

In 2008, the year before the contest was announced, five states changed teacher evaluation laws. Between 2009 and 2010, 18 states changed teacher evaluation laws, in some cases explicitly tying the legislation to “Race to the Top” requirements.

From the outset, federal education officials knew many of those states wouldn’t end up with extra money. Instead, the incentive was just the carrot they hoped for as states lined up to craft reform plans that matched Washington’s thoughts on improving education.

“It certainly spurred considerable policy change,” said Sabrina Laine, director of the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality, a Washington-based group funded by the Department of Education that tracked states’ responses to the grants contest.

Now that the awards have been handed out, the losing states will be as interesting to watch as the winners. Will states make those changes even without the federal money?

So far, results are mixed. Some states are vowing to plow ahead as best they can without federal money. Others are sticking with their plans, but pushing back deadlines because of tight budgets. And a few are bracing for fights over whether to abandon the reform plans altogether.

Many in the losing states say they still believe in the changes they vowed to make.

“These reforms were long overdue,” said Michigan’s Harrison Blackmond, head of his state’s chapter of Democrats for Education Reform.

That state loosened its cap on charter schools and instituted its first statewide requirement that student performance factor in teacher evaluations. Both were changes Blackmond says were unlikely without the prospect of getting “Race to the Top” money.

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