On Race to the Top funds, D.C. stumbles

Of the 12 jurisdictions that won the earliest grants under the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, the District of Columbia has come under extra scrutiny by federal officials concerned about its ability to manage the money.

The U.S. Education Department has placed a hold on $6.2 million of the $75 million it awarded the District — money that is supposed to be used to improve eight “persistently low achieving schools” — saying that local officials must first seek explicit federal approval before spending those funds.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday in a conference call with the media that the tighter management was due to “concerns with OSSE’s management,” a reference to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education, the local agency that manages federal money designated for D.C. schools.

The District and 11 states received Race to the Top grants in 2009 and 2010. On Wednesday, federal officials released a progress report showing problems with the District’s effort to improve the eight schools.

According to the report, the District is behind in its obligation to come up with a strategy for those schools — Browne Education Campus, Garfield Elementary School, Johnson Middle School, Kramer Middle School, Anacostia High School, Dunbar High School, Eastern High School and Luke C. Moore High School.

Ann Whalen, who oversees implementation of the $4 billion in Race to the Top grants at the Education Department, said that before OSSE can tap into the federal dollars it won to improve those schools, it will have to submit additional plans and “get our approval so the way they’re spending their money matches the commitment they made.”

OSSE, which is responsible for a number of citywide education initiatives, including administering standardized tests and providing buses for students with disabilities, has been roiled by leadership turnover and been widely viewed as struggling to find its footing since its inception in 2007.

Ayan Islam, an OSSE spokeswoman, said that the agency ran into delays in its dealings with D.C. public schools but that “we’ve since worked to rectify these challenges in partnership with them.”

Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s signature education policy, is a series of competitive grants that have been awarded to states willing to embrace the administration’s favored policies to improve public schools.

Since the contests began in 2009, the administration has given out $4 billion in federal dollars, most of it made available by Congress as part of stimulus spending after the 2008 recession. Eleven states and the District won grants in the first two rounds, and seven other states won grants in 2011.

The winning states agreed to make changes in four areas: adopting academic standards and related tests that would prepare students for college and careers; creating data systems to measure student academic growth; recruiting, developing and retaining effective teachers and principals; and improving the lowest-performing schools.

Although less than half the states won grants, Race to the Top inspired policy changes in many more because states had to make certain changes — such as adopting new academic standards in K-12 math and reading — just to compete for the money.

This “unleashed states’ and districts’ creativity and innovation even in states that didn’t win a nickel,” Duncan said.

“It’s too early to draw any big conclusions” about the impact of the grants, Duncan added. “But it’s exciting to see the changes districts are making."

Race to the Top has been controversial among teachers unions, which have argued that federal tax dollars should be spent equally among school districts instead of creating “winners and losers.” And critics on Capitol Hill say that the contest gave the Obama administration too much influence in education decisions that should be made locally.

This year was to be the fourth and final year of the Race to the Top grants for the 12 original winners, but nearly all have asked the Education Department for a one-year extension to meet all their commitments under the grant. The only state that has not sought extra time is Hawaii, which Duncan called “a rising star” in school improvement.

He also praised Delaware, Tennessee and North Carolina for making significant progress toward their goals under the grants. Other states that received grants in 2009 and 2010 include Maryland, New York, Georgia, Florida, Massachusetts, Ohio and Rhode Island.

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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