Obama Launches 'Race' for $4 Billion in Education Funds

By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 24, 2009; 3:32 PM

President Obama launched a competition Friday for $4.35 billion in federal education funds, urging states to ease restrictions on charter schools, link teacher pay to student achievement and adopt common national academic standards to be eligible for the money.

In a speech at the Education Department, Obama joined Education Secretary Arne Duncan in announcing draft criteria for the "Race to the Top" fund, which the administration is billing as the "largest-ever federal investment in education reform."

"America will not succeed in the 21st century unless we do a far better job of educating our sons and daughters," Obama said. "In a world where countries that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow, the future belongs to the nation that best educates its people."

Acknowledging that "our education system is falling short," he said that for years, "we've talked these problems to death . . . while doing all too little to solve them." Now, he said, he is challenging the nation's governors, schools boards, teachers, parents, students and others to meet "a few key benchmarks for reform" in order to compete for and win Race to the Top grants.

"That race starts today," Obama said. He pledged that "this competition will not be based on politics or ideology or the preferences of a particular interest group" but on "whether a state is ready to do what works."

If everyone pitches in, he said, "then we will not only strengthen our economy over the long run, and we will not only make America's entire education system the envy of the world, but we will launch a Race to the Top that will prepare every child, everywhere in America, for the challenges of the 21st century."

The fund "will reward eligible states for past accomplishments and create incentives for future improvement" in four key areas: toughening academic standards, recruiting and retaining effective teachers, turning around failing schools and tracking the performance of students and teachers, the Education Department said.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Obama made it clear that he wants to use the federal aid as leverage to reform the U.S. public education system, which by some measures has been lagging behind the school systems of other industrialized countries.

Speaking before Obama addressed the gathering Friday, Duncan underscored a need to target particular school districts for reform. He noted that 2,000 high schools produce half the country's dropouts and "a staggering 75 percent of our nation's minority dropouts."

Warning that states can increase or decrease their odds of winning federal support through their policies, Duncan said states that cap the number of charter schools or fail to hold such schools accountable, for example, "will be at a disadvantage," and those that prohibit linking student performance to teacher evaluations "will be ineligible" for the funding. Several states, including New York, California and Wisconsin, bar such linkages, which also are generally opposed by teachers unions.

In addition to the Race to the Top fund, which was established under the $787 billion economic stimulus package enacted in February, the government is making billions more available for educational innovation, technology and other programs, Duncan said.

"When you add it all up, the department will be disbursing almost $10 billion for education reform," he said. He urged state governments: "Do not let this unprecedented opportunity slip by."

The Education Department plans to gather public comment on the program's rules over the next 30 days before finalizing the criteria and accepting applications for funding this fall. Officials expect to release the first round of aid early next year, with a second tranche following by September 2010.

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