Feds float guidelines for school-based Race to the Top grants

The Education Department is accepting public comment on the criteria and will release the application in July.

Following a wave of state education reforms spurred by its Race to the Top competition, the federal Education Department (ED) said May 22 that individual school districts will be able to compete for $400 million in grants to bring the initiative to the classroom level.

School districts with at least 2,500 students—40 percent or more of whom must qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a key indicator of poverty—will be eligible to receive up to $25 million to create plans targeting specific groups of students with the aim of closing the achievement gap.

“We need to take classroom learning beyond a one-size-fits-all model and bring it into the 21st century,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

Race to the Top already has awarded billions of dollars to states to implement education reforms the Obama administration favors. To qualify for a slice of the funds, many states changed their laws, creating new evaluation systems that tied teacher assessments to student performance and lifting caps on the number of charter schools permitted.

Congress approved $550 million for the new Race to the Top competition in this budget year. The bulk of the money will be for the district-level grants. About $133 million will go to states that were close to winning the department’s early learning challenge.

ED officials will evaluate school district applicants’ commitment to four core areas: adopting standards and assessments that prepare students for college and the workplace; building data systems to measure student growth and using the figures to help teachers become better instructors; building an effective cadre of teachers; and turning around low-performing schools.

Among the proposed eligibility criteria is an evaluation of the school board by the 2014-15 school year. The evaluation would look at feedback from stakeholders and student outcomes.

Reggie Felton, assistant executive director for the National School Boards Association, noted that most school board members are elected officials, and he cautioned against creating a process that essentially functions as a second election. Overall, however, he said the competition would be positive—particularly for districts in states that didn’t win before.

“Historically, only the states had the options to apply for federal [RTTT] funds, and if a state didn’t there was no alternative for a school district that had a great idea,” Felton said. “Local districts do now have an opportunity.”

The department is accepting public comment on the criteria and will release the application in July. Grant winners are expected to be announced by the end of December.

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