States that lost school money face reform dilemmas

“It’s unfortunate that sometimes we need that big prize to spur reform that’s essential and necessary, but that’s where we were,” Blackmond said. “It was an important incentive, and frankly it provided cover for some Democrats who needed to be able to tell the unions this was coming from a Democratic administration.”

Things are different in New Jersey, which spent about $500,000 applying twice for reform grants but failed. State education leaders there plan to press on with changes including tying teacher tenure and raises to student performance.

“It’s full steam ahead,” said New Jersey Department of Education spokesman Alan Guenther. “We’re committed to making the reforms that we advocate for in our application.”

But it’s unclear whether that will happen. Many of New Jersey’s proposals haven’t been approved by state lawmakers and are opposed by teachers’ groups. With no additional federal money awaiting that state, will the proposal by Republican Gov. Chris Christie go forward as is? Not likely, said Steven Baker, spokesman for the state’s largest teachers’ union.

However, even critics of the changes proposed in many losing states are skeptical about the prospects for unwinding changes made with the grant money in mind.

“The battles we went through last year were too painful, and I don’t think anyone wants to reopen old wounds,” said Colorado state Sen. Evie Hudak, a vocal opponent of Colorado’s teacher tenure change. Hudak was cynical about how Colorado would proceed on its reform plan with no federal money.

“We’re stuck now. The mandates are all there, but we don’t have the money,” said Hudak, a Democrat. “The whole thing was poorly thought out.”

Sour grapes? Maybe, but the federal “Race to the Top” program certainly had losing states in mind as well as the winners.

“The side goal of this program was to break the logjam against this kind of reform–and on that I think you have to say it did what they hoped,” said Bruce Baker, a Rutgers University associate professor and expert in school finance. Baker is a critic of the “Race to the Top” contest but said it succeeded in prompting states to make the changes Washington favored.

“A lot of states jumped on the bandwagon in a race for that money,” Baker said.

And there may be a glimmer of hope for the losers. Some Democrats in Congress have proposed a third round of funding, with awards possible to new states. And Education Secretary Arne Duncan has proposed awarding new grants to single districts, not just states.

A new round of competitive education reform grants appears unlikely–but one Democratic sponsor of the extension plan says it could prove popular with the new Republican majority in the House. And if not, any changes that stick in losing states will make the effort worthwhile, said Colorado Rep. Jared Polis.

“Even the states that didn’t get it are winners for their students,” Polis said.

Of course, a third round would test the patience of hopeful states that lost twice before. In Colorado, the sponsor of the teacher-tenure bill, Rep. Christine Scanlan, joked that state officials may want to simply resubmit their old proposals.

“One of my colleagues said we should just send it back with a note that says, ‘Here you go. Now just send us the damn money,'” Scanlan said.

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