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Missouri, Illinois apply for Race to the Top money as Obama announces more funds next year

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 20, 2010 - While applications from Missouri, Illinois and a few dozen other states were on their way to Washington Tuesday, vying for a share of more than $4 billion in education money, the White House announced plans to extend the Race to the Top sweepstakes into next year.

President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that the administration's budget blueprint for the 2011 fiscal year would include a request for $1.3 billion that states and individual school districts could compete for.

The plan highlighted Duncan's pledge that his department was not interested in simply taking one shot at improving the nation's schools but planned to be in the effort over the long haul. 

And, he told reporters in a conference call, the project is designed to let the leaders in education reform show the rest of the nation the best way to proceed.

"We're going to fund those states that are demonstrating to the country what is possible," Duncan said. "Folks that are interested in playing games or keeping the status quo, we have no interest in funding that.

"This is not a race to the middle. This is a race to the top and we meant what we said."

Tuesday's deadline was for states to apply for the first of two sets of grants that will be awarded from the $4.35 billion fund, part of the $787 billion economic stimulus plan approved by Congress last year. Duncan said Wednesday that 40 states had submitted applications -- all of the states that had previously expressed interest. Those states that did not apply were Alaska, Maryland, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Texas, Vermont, and Washington.

Winners will be notified in April; states that do not get money initially will get advice on where their efforts fell short, in time for the second round of applications that are due in June. Winners in that round will get the word in September.

The program is designed to reward states that have demonstrated excellence in four areas, with a highly detailed point system corresponding to goals within each of the broader categories:

  • Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and on the job.
  • Building data systems that both gauge how well students are doing and let teachers and administrators know how they can be more effective in the classroom.
  • Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining successful principals and teachers.
  • Improving schools that are doing poorly.

Duncan said Tuesday that even before any of the grants have been awarded, Race to the Top has prompted many states to make positive changes, including better standards, more effective and inclusive laws governing charter schools and comprehensive reform plans at the state and local levels.
"Everyone is stepping up and taking responsibility," he said, noting that in many cases, reform has been held up by the failure of many different groups -- teachers, administrators, school boards unions -- to work for a common goal.

"Part of what makes education so difficult in this country," he said, "is that you need a realignment of adults."

He repeatedly emphasized two points: Only the best applications will be rewarded with money, and the whole point of the competition is to raise the level achievement in the nation's classrooms.

"We want to fund as many great proposals as we can, but we don't want to fund those that are good and have potential but aren't great yet," Duncan said. "We'll simply fund the best of the best in the first round.

"We're competing with the world for the jobs of the future, and our responsibility is to prepare our children for those jobs."

Or as Obama put it Tuesday when he and Duncan visited Graham Road Elementary School in Falls Church, Va.: "Countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow, and I refuse to let that happen on my watch."

Missouri's application

Missouri's application seeks more than $743 million, of which $354 million would go directly to participating school districts and charter schools. Regardless of whether the state receives a grant, it said the application would serve as the framework for revamping the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and for driving education reform over the next 10 years.

The goal, the application said, is to make Missouri schools among the top 10 nationally and internationally.

"If Race to the Top is going to be this decade's 'moon shot' for public education, we want to be among the first to fly," said Commissioner of Education Chris L. Nicastro.

"We intend to establish Missouri's position as a leader in improving America's public schools over the next decade. This is no time for half measures. I think we have a game plan that is bold, smart and comprehensive - and we can execute it."

Among highlights from the application:

  • Adopting and implementing standards in core curriculum areas and aligning high school graduation requirements with standards for making sure students are ready for college or work.
  • Providing the necessary technology and bandwidth to all school districts and linking classroom observations to a web-based teacher quality system.
  • Working to establish pay levels, flexible schedules and other incentives to attract teachers and administrators to high-need or hard-to-staff schools.
  • Developing turnaround strategies for schools that need immediate attention and early learning programs that will provide a strong foundation to prevent the need for turnaround in the future for others.
  • Strengthening the process for authorizing and sponsoring charter schools to assure increased accountability, higher student performance and fiscal integrity.

Illinois' application

In its application, Illinois acknowledged education in the state often falls short, but its plans for improvement would help speed up efforts that are already in place.

"The state of Illinois has long recognized that its education system must prepare each and every child for success in postsecondary education and employment," the application said. "Yet, for too long, low achievement has persisted in many Illinois communities. While quality education is a reality for some Illinoisans, it remains elusive for many.

"The system's shortcomings are not confined to urban or rural districts, nor are they limited to Chicago or 'downstate.' Instead, the impact is felt by every citizen of Illinois -- in lost wages, lost jobs, lost revenue; and in higher crime, poorer health, and missed opportunities."

Federal Race to the Top funds would help remedy such problems, the document said.

"Illinois is well-positioned to capitalize on this opportunity because the state possesses a clear overarching vision for improving instruction, has already shown a solid commitment to advancing education reform (particularly in the RTTT priority areas), and boasts strong and collaborative support for change. So, Illinois does not seek a fresh start in this contest, but a chance to accelerate the work that is already underway with much needed funding from the federal government."

Noting the percentage of local school districts that signed on to the proposals, the application said that "Illinois' RTTT plan is an honest and transparent depiction of where our educational system stands today, and where we plan to take it. This is our path forward; it is unmistakably aggressive, distinctly sustainable, and it will be implemented successfully. "

The application also noted significant obstacles, including the fact that the state has 869 independent school districts -- more than any other state except for Texas and California -- and the dynamic of "Chicago vs. downstate," where the state's dominant district, with 400,000 students, often hampers efforts at true reform.

The application highlighted last week's enactment of the Performance Evaluation Reform Act, which requires the use of student growth data as a significant factor in teacher and principal evaluations. Passage of the act needed the cooperation of groups that historically have been at odds, including teachers' unions, business groups, education advocates, key lawmakers and the governor's office.

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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