Stimulus Includes $5 Billion Flexible Fund for Education Innovation

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 14, 2009

Education Secretary Arne Duncan would have $5 billion under the stimulus bill to back new approaches to improve schools, a fund that could prod states to raise standards and reward top teachers as the Obama administration presides over a massive infusion of federal education aid.

The Race to the Top Fund, as Duncan calls it, is part of about $100 billion the bill would channel to public schools, universities and early childhood education programs nationwide, helping stave off teacher layoffs, keep class sizes in check and jump-start efforts to revamp aging schools.

But the windfall also could mark the beginning of a deeper transformation of schools seven years after the No Child Left Behind law mandated an expansion of testing and new systems for school accountability.

"This is what I see as just an absolute historic opportunity," Duncan told reporters yesterday. He said the stimulus bill would help the Obama administration hammer three themes: "First and foremost, protecting children. Secondly, saving and creating jobs. And third, pushing a significant reform agenda."

President Obama in recent days has repeatedly stressed a bold approach to improve public education. In a surprise foray out of the White House last week to read to schoolchildren, he chose a D.C. public charter school as a backdrop.

"What I've asked Arne Duncan to do is to make sure that he works as hard as he can over the next several years to make sure that we're reforming our schools, that we're rewarding innovation the way that it's taking place here," Obama said at Capital City Public Charter School.

Obama campaigned on promises to increase federal funding for schools, responding to complaints from teachers unions and many educators who have long argued that Washington has made demands on schools without paying its fair share. But he also said he would shake up the status quo, drawing on a host of methods, including performance-pay plans with teachers' blessing, alternative teacher training programs and charter schools, which are publicly financed but independently run.

The stimulus presents an unheard-of opportunity to push both agendas -- at least in the short term.

"You're not creating winners or losers," said Brown University education professor Martin West. "It's a lot easier to innovate when you can do it with new money."

Even as school leaders line up projects to overhaul old schools and seek ways to soften budget cuts, they also are on the lookout for innovative programs worthy of federal dollars and the national spotlight.

Arlington County Superintendent Robert G. Smith said he might seek a grant from Duncan to expand a program that provides extra support for Latino and African American students in Advanced Placement classes.

Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said federal backing for innovation is "a smart move" because some of the best school reform strategies percolate from the ground up. "The reason why Montgomery County does so well . . . is innovative teaching and learning, so there's no doubt our people have great ideas."

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