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$5 billion carrot for schools overhaul

Dangling the promise of $5 billion in grants, President Barack Obama on July 24 pressured states to embrace his ideas for overhauling the nation’s schools — ideas that include performance pay for teachers and more charter schools.

To get the money, state officials might have to do things they, or the teachers’ unions, dislike. But in a recession that is starving state budgets, the new "Race to the Top" fund is proving impossible for some states to resist.

Already, seven states–Tennessee, Rhode Island, Indiana, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Colorado, and Illinois–have lifted restrictions on charter schools so they can compete for the money.

"Not every state will win, and not every school district will be happy with the results," the president said. "But America’s children, America’s economy, America itself will be better for it."

Officials from nearly a dozen states, including Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, and Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, joined Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan July 24 at the Education Department (ED) headquarters to announce the rules for the competition.

Broadly speaking, the president wants states to do four things he considers to be reforms: toughen academic standards, find better ways to recruit and keep effective teachers, track student performance, and have a plan of action to turn around failing schools.

The nation cannot succeed in the 21st century unless it does a much better job of educating its children, Obama said.

"In a world where countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow, the future belongs to the nation that best educates its people, period," Obama said. "We know this. But we also know that today, our education system is falling short."

There is broad agreement about Obama’s assessment. Only about one-third of U.S. students could read and do math at current grade levels on national tests in 2007, the most recent year for which data is available. And the high school dropout rate is dismal–1 in 4 kids.

Obama can’t really tell states and schools what to do, because education has been a state and local responsibility throughout the country’s history. But he has considerable leverage in his ability to reward states that follow his path and withhold money from those that don’t.

The $5 billion fund was part of the economic stimulus law passed earlier this year. It is a fraction of the $100 billion that was included for schools, but the fund is massive compared with the estimated $16 million in discretionary money Duncan’s predecessors got each year for their own priorities.

"None of them had the resources to encourage innovation that we have today," Duncan said.

Moreover, the $5 billion fund has taken on added importance because in many states, the bulk of the stimulus money is being used to fill increasingly larger budget holes, and not for the innovations Obama wants.

A report from the Government Accountability Office earlier this month said school districts are planning to use the money mostly to prevent teacher layoffs.

"Most [states] did not indicate they would use these funds to pursue educational reform," the report said. The GAO is the investigative arm of Congress.

Already, the promise of an extra $5 billion has helped Duncan prod state legislatures to do the administration’s bidding.

For example, he warned Tennessee lawmakers they could lose out on the money if they kept blocking a bill to let more kids into charter schools; within weeks, the bill was enacted and signed into law.

"It’s amazing the amount of progress, literally, without us spending a dime," Duncan said.

Duncan envisions the grants going to perhaps 10 to 20 states that can serve as models for innovation.

A state will have to meet a series of conditions to earn points and boost its chances. Some of those conditions are controversial, especially among teachers’ unions, which make up an influential segment of Obama’s Democratic base.

For example, the administration says it will not award money to states that bar student performance data from being linked to teacher evaluations. Several states, including California and New York, have such a prohibition.

Obama supports performance pay, which links teacher bonuses to student achievement using measures that include test scores. Many teachers don’t want test scores to be used because tests can be deeply flawed, because kids aren’t tested in every subject, and because kids have more than one teacher.

But there are also elements the unions will embrace; states can earn points by submitting letters of support from state union leaders.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel were also on hand for the announcement.

ED will gather public comment on its rules for the $5 billion fund for the next 30 days; applications will be available in October and due in December, and the first round of money should be awarded in March.


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

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