Obama to spotlight education reform efforts

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 3, 2009; 3:37 PM

President Obama on Wednesday will highlight education reform efforts in 10 states where governors and lawmakers are maneuvering for a piece of the $4.35 billion to be awarded in the "Race to the Top" competition that will begin in the next several weeks.

White House aides said Obama will visit a middle school in Wisconsin, where lawmakers are on the verge of allowing teacher evaluations to be linked to student performance data.

"Without that change, Wisconsin would not be eligible for 'Race to the Top' funding," said Melody Barnes, director of Obama's domestic policy council. "We will only award grants to those that demonstrate real commitment and real results."

Some school officials across the country have expressed resistance to a new set of mandates from Washington, much like the long-standing objections to the No Child Left Behind law, passed at the urging of then-President George W. Bush.

But Barnes said the Education Department has seen encouraging movement by a number of states, which are eager to change their policies to qualify for the competition.

California and Louisiana beat Wisconsin to eliminating rules that would have prohibited the use of student performance data in evaluating teachers. Louisiana, Illinois and Tennessee eliminated or raised caps on the numbers of charter schools that are allowed. Five other states made it easier to establish charters.

"I absolutely believe the activity we are seeing in California, Wisconsin . . . is prompted by the 'Race to the Top' competition," Barnes said. "There has been a lot of activity. They want their states to be in contention for these dollars."

In previewing the president's trip with reporters, White House officials said Obama is not abandoning the standards-based approach that many lawmakers found appealing in the Bush approach. One requirement for competing for the new money will be the use of high-quality standards, they said.

But they said the funding competition is designed to spur local education reforms that go beyond the rigid accountability formulas set up by the No Child law and, as education policy aide Roberto Rodriguez put it, "incenting states to improve upon their existing standards."

The competition will officially begin when the government publishes the final application that states must fill out to compete for the money. The draft version of that application has been the subject of more than 3,700 comments from educators and others, officials said. Those comments will be made public when the application form is released.

The first series of grants will be awarded in January, Barnes said.

"There will definitely be states that will compete that won't get money," she said. But she added that there will be a second round of the competition that schools can prepare for.

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