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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.

“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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