Sunday, July 05, 2009

How will Texas compete in Race to the Top?

$4 billion federal grant program is unprecedented, highly selective effort to spur education innovation.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Texas appeared to have a head start on its competitors when the Obama administration announced it would offer select states huge grants to encourage cutting-edge reforms in education. But recent signals from Washington could indicate the competition might be stiffer than Texas officials thought.

The state has pioneered programs, involving such things as rigorous standards and teacher incentives, that the Obama administration said would be priorities for the education money in the federal stimulus package, including the $4 billion Race to the Top grant program intended to spur innovation.

"Texas is very well-positioned in terms of the work we've done over the past several years to take advantage of this," Education Commissioner Robert Scott told a legislative committee in March, shortly after the program was announced. "We can bring to completion some of the reform work we've been working on."

But as more information has trickled out of the U.S. Department of Education in recent weeks, it appears that Texas might also have some notable strikes against it:

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan warned that states could harm their chances in the grant competition by using stimulus money to "backfill budget holes" while protecting state dollars.

Texas left untouched $9.1 billion in its rainy day fund while using $3.2 billion in stimulus money to pay for textbooks and increase school funding. State officials argue that the use of money was in compliance with the law and say there was a lack of federal guidance on spending the money.

The Legislature failed to enact a key charter school overhaul that would have lifted a cap on the number of charter schools in Texas and given the commissioner more tools to hold charter schools accountable for poor performance, both key priorities for the Obama administration.

"Texas would not be considered a charter-friendly environment," said David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter School Alliance.

Texas is one of only four states that has declined to participate in a national effort to craft common standards for English and math instruction in public schools.

State officials say that Texas already leads the nation in embracing rigorous standards and that the state requirements could be tougher than the common standards. Moving to new standards would also be costly, so the state is taking a wait-and-see approach.

"It's not just Texas that has done exemplary work," said Bill Slotnik, executive director of the Boston-based Community Training and Assistance Center, which helps districts nationwide, including Austin, put in place reform programs. "If you're claiming you're the exemplar, than why wouldn't you want to work with the other states on this?"

Each of those issues is clearly important to Duncan, who has addressed them generally in recent speeches and interviews, and he has discretion over the grant allocations. Education Department representatives have said the issues could put Texas at a competitive disadvantage in the Race to the Top.

But their weight in the final grant determination is not yet known.

Jerel Booker, associate commissioner for the Texas Education Agency, said none of the potential strikes against Texas should count it out of the Race to the Top.

"As long as we're meeting these core reforms and improving student achievement," Booker said, "I think we'll be in great shape."

Michael Kirst, professor emeritus of education and business administration at Stanford University, said "the key thing is maybe not these off-the-cuff statements being made, but what are the real regulations and guidelines for getting this money?"

The rules are due to be released in late July.

The state's history of reform is going to be very important, said Kirst, an author and expert in education reform policies. Texas has been the first state to try some reforms and is way ahead of other states in many areas, such as giving teachers merit pay and integrating college-readiness standards into the curriculum, Kirst said.

But Slotnik said Texas will have to show that its reforms have produced results. "Are the things that you're doing reaching the classroom in a way that is demonstrably benefiting students?" he asked.

"Just being from Texas is not going to carry the weight that it did in a previous administration," Slotnik said.

Many critical details about the Race to the Top program will not be known until the Education Department issues the rules. A first round of grants is expected in early 2010 and another later in the year.

The unofficial word is that only three or four states will get money in the first round and perhaps another 10 states in the second round, said Mike Griffith, a senior policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, which helps states develop public education policies and practices.

"We want to reward those states that are willing to lead the country where we need to go and are willing to push this reform agenda very, very hard," Duncan told the Associated Press in May.

"There are a number of states that are leading this effort, and we want to invest a huge amount of money into them, a minimum of $100 million, probably north of that," Duncan said. "And the states that don't have the stomach or the political will, unfortunately, they're going to lose out."

The stakes are high for states and the federal government.

"The states that get it will be viewed as leaders, and the states that don't will be viewed as laggards," Kirst said.

And private grant money is likely to follow the federal money, Kirst said.

For the federal government, the amount of money being injected into public education substantially increases its investment. If this experiment is not successful, it is going to complicate any future argument for a greater infusion for education, Slotnik said.

"The federal government wants to see a return on this investment," Slotnik said, and the successful states will understand that and respond to it.

Booker said Texas will "make a great argument" for the federal government to invest here.

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