The week before Jan. 19, 2010, was a busy one for Tim Webb, Tennessee's commissioner of education. Webb and his aides were in meetings and briefings in the capitol, many of them overlapping one another on various days. Webb's goal was to convince legislators to change how teachers are evaluated and to allow the state to help turn around low-performing schools. Gov. Phil Bredesen challenged the Legislature to pass these reforms within a week.
Why? Because Tennessee has a one-time opportunity from the federal government to win millions of dollars for education reform under Race to the Top grants, made available by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009.
Further north, the Michigan Department of Education was in a time crunch of its own for a similar reason. The department needed teachers' unions, school districts and the State Board of Education to pledge support for the state's education reform plan, backed by Gov. Jennifer Granholm. There was just one problem: No final plan existed as to how those reforms would be achieved; there was just a 12-page summary. The full plan wasn't expected until the weekend before Jan. 19, 2010, and many stakeholders were uneasy about supporting something they hadn't seen.
Race to the Top, the ARRA program that awards slices of $4.35 billion in discretionary stimulus funding to a select group of states, has two deadlines, and Jan. 19, 2010, was the closing date for round one.
Though the amount at stake for each state isn't much compared to their overall education budget, ever-shrinking funds are still making education officials consider whether the deadline race is worth it. These monies may very well be enough to help finance major changes states couldn't previously have made.
Tennessee and Michigan are just two of a number of states that have made major changes to their education systems in a rush to meet the Race to the Top's round one deadline. Each governor must submit the applications to the U.S. Department of Education along with signatures from the state's chief state school officer and the president of the state's board of education.
While states already receive other sources of federal funding for schools, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has spotlighted the Race to the Top, calling it "education reform's moon shot." The grants will reward states for making changes in teacher certification and evaluation, academic standards, and tracking student performance. The program also encourages states to take a bigger role in turning around low-performing schools and increasing student achievement. The hope is that these reforms will make U.S. students internationally competitive and better prepared for college and careers.
The amount a state could win in Race to the Top roughly depends on population. The smallest states could start at $20 million, while larger states like New York, California, Florida and Texas could ask for up to $700 million . Half of the awarded funding would be disbursed to participating local education agencies based on their share of Title I funds, while the other half could be spent on state initiatives or as additional funding to local schools.
Some states, however, are not applying for these funds at all: Texas Gov. Rick Perry announced Jan. 13, 2010, that his state would not apply, saying in a release that he didn't want Texas to commit to national standards. This, however, seems to be one of the few exceptions, as 40 states and the District of Columbia applied for funds in round one, according to the department.
But that doesn't mean the remaining states can't still apply -- they can wait for the second round -- and unsuccessful states can reapply.
Most states pulled out all stops to apply for Race to the Top funds. "We've been impressed by the number of states who are still engaged in the process of round one of Race to the Top," says Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. The council has assisted states with the application process, and also partnered with the National Governors Association in creating common standards for K-12 education, which a majority of states support.
There may also be a fear of fewer dollars available in the second round, says John F. (Jack) Jennings, president and CEO of the Center on Education Policy, an independent education advocacy group. The Department of Education has said there will be enough money for states that apply (or reapply) in round two. "State leaders just don't want to take a chance," says Jennings.
For those that have applied early, there are some advantages. The two-step judging process includes a panel review of the written application, and potential face-to-face presentation in Washington, D.C. States can expect feedback on their proposals, and if they don't win a round one award, they can perfect their application based on this feedback for round two.
To meet that Jan. 19, 2010, deadline, some states, such as Tennessee and Michigan, had to reform their education laws quickly to make themselves more competitive. One thing states could do to better their chances is link student test scores to teacher evaluations. Providing the state the power to make decisions for low-performing schools was another issue for legislators. Some states attempted to change other laws regarding the legality of charter schools, or lifting caps on the number of charters.
"Regardless of Race to the Top, Tennessee will benefit from the changes being considered" wrote Commissioner Webb in an e-mail during the special legislative session. If the laws Tennessee proposed were not passed within that week's time, he planned on passing the laws in the regular session. But Bredesen put heavy pressure on the Legislature to get the laws passed in time for a January application. The Legislature passed Race to the Top legislation Jan. 15.
Even if a state's laws are passed and signed in time for the deadline, states must conquer yet another challenge. U.S. Department of Education officials want to see that the governor and state superintendent have support from local districts, unions and the state board of education. If local stakeholders are unclear or unhappy with a state's plan, it could weaken the state's Race to the Top application.
In Michigan, local officials and teacher unions expressed concerns after the state's Department of Education posted just a 12-page summary of the application. The final plan was expected to be about 100 pages. "A lot of people want to see those 88 pages," says Doug Pratt, a spokesman for the Michigan Education Association (MEA). In the end, MEA's final decision to its locals recommended not supporting the state's Race to the Top plan. Michigan's State Board of Education president did approve the state's plan, as did more than 750 school districts, with nearly 50 union locals signing on.
So far, only a handful of states, including Maryland, Maine and Washington, had announced they would wait until June to submit their Race to the Top initiatives. Officials in those states determined they couldn't make the necessary changes to their laws to meet the first deadline. "We need time to explain to legislators and the public what we're trying to accomplish," says Maine Department of Education Spokesman David Connerty-Marin.
States that wait will have an advantage of seeing what the winning applications propose, and will then have two months to alter their plans, gather support and submit for the June deadline. While extra time could help states position themselves better for round two, it doesn't mean states can slow down on gathering Race to the Top support. "This is all very much on the fast track, regardless of if you do it by Jan. 19 or in June," says Connerty-Marin.
Even if states rushed to submit their applications for round one or round two, there is no guarantee that the states will win money. What the states will have after Race to the Top are reforms that may not have happened without the potential of money. "I think in some cases, it's filling in the gaps in policymaking that they may not have paid attention to," observes Wilhoit, who added that laws a state passed could support and potentially open up opportunities to engage in much-needed education reforms. "Race to the Top has been just the catalyst some states have needed legislatively."