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States Skeptical of 'Race to the Top' Contest

By New York Times, New York Times - April 5, 2010

A dozen governors, led by Bill Ritter Jr. of Colorado, sat with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a hotel ballroom in Washington a few weeks back, praising his vision and gushing with enthusiasm over a $4 billion grant competition they hoped could land their states a jackpot of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Gov. Bill Ritter Jr. has criticized the method used to choose states for school aid.

But for many of those governors, the contest lost some sizzle last week, when Mr. Duncan awarded money to only two states — Delaware and Tennessee.

Colorado, which had hoped to win $377 million, ended in 14th place. Now Mr. Ritter says the scoring by anonymous judges seemed inscrutable, some Coloradans view the contest as federal intrusion and the governor has not decided whether to reapply for the second round.

“It was like the Olympic Games, and we were an American skater with a Soviet judge from the 1980s,” Mr. Ritter said.

Colorado is not the only state where the initial results of the Obama administration’s signature school improvement initiative, known as Race to the Top, have left a sour taste. Many states are questioning the criteria by which winners were chosen, wondering why there were only two that won and criticizing a last-minute cap on future awards.

Besides Colorado, a string of other states — including Arizona, California, Nebraska, South Carolina and South Dakota — say they have not yet decided whether to keep participating.

“There’s a serious conversation going on here about whether it makes sense to put all that time and effort in again to reapply,” said Rick Miller, who as deputy schools superintendent led California’s first-round Race to the Top effort. He has since left state government.

Officials from several states criticized the scoring of the contest, which favored states able to gain support from 100 percent of school districts and local teachers’ unions for Obama administration objectives like expanding charter schools, reworking teacher evaluation systems and turning around low-performing schools.

Marshalling such support is one thing for a tiny state like Delaware, with 38 districts, they said, and quite another for, say, California, with some 1,500.

Administration officials say they consider last week’s outcome a splendid success. By awarding only $100 million to Delaware and $500 million to Tennessee, Mr. Duncan retained $3.4 billion to dole out to up to 15 winning states in September, weeks before the midterm elections — a political bonus that officials insist is mere serendipity.

Mr. Duncan says the administration won victories months before the results were announced, when a dozen states rewrote education laws in ways the administration had recommended. Michigan, for instance, passed laws permitting state takeovers of failing schools and tying teacher evaluations to students’ test scores.

Such legislative changes laid only the groundwork for states to undertake more far-reaching overhauls of educator evaluation systems and low-performing schools that are the heart of the administration’s school reform strategy.

Frederick Hess, a director at the American Enterprise Institute, said that the changes would require years of work and that the administration would need broad cooperation from a majority of states.

“This administration has had billions in stimulus dollars to buy support,” Mr. Hess said. “After that money is spent, further success with reform will depend on good working relationships with states. That is why all this grumbling matters.”

When 40 states and the District of Columbia submitted proposals for Race to the Top grants in January, federal officials were delighted. And they say they do not want any to opt out.

Sixteen finalists were named on March 4, and governors from seven of those states traveled to Washington to face videotaped questioning by contest judges.

Mr. Duncan called all 15 governors on March 29 to inform them of the two winners.

“I didn’t know how those calls would go,” Mr. Duncan said. “You know, you never want to call folks with bad news. And I couldn’t have been more impressed with their commitment and their desire to take the next step in Round 2.”

Joanne Weiss, an aide to Mr. Duncan who is administering the competition, said she and her staff were working hard to persuade states to improve their proposals for the second round. “But it’ll be up to them, of course, to decide whether it’s worth their time and resources,” Ms. Weiss said.

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