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A shot at school reform fund provokes tensions, fast changes

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 17, 2010; A04

To compete for a share of $4 billion in federal education funds, California lawmakers approved a major school reform plan. But in Texas, the governor chose to opt out of the competition, arguing that it would give Washington too much power over education policy.

The contrasting approaches from the two most populous states show the political tensions the Obama administration's initiative has provoked as the first application deadline for the Race to the Top school reform fund approaches Tuesday. Virginia and the District are competing in round one, but Maryland is waiting for round two later this year.

Many states have tinkered with laws and policies in recent months to improve their chances in a competition Obama launched last year to shake up the education establishment. California is among the most prominent: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has signed bills to facilitate the use of student test data to evaluate teachers and to take aggressive steps to turn around struggling schools. One provision gives parents the power to bring about change directly through a petition drive.

The influential California Teachers Association opposed elements of the legislation. But there appears to be bipartisan support for the state's application.

"This systemic reform is in the best interest of the students," said State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, a Democrat in the nonpartisan office. He acknowledged the lure of an award worth as much as $700 million for a state in fiscal crisis. But he added: "I'm not as motivated for the money. It's the right policy."

Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) announced Wednesday that his state would not compete. Perry, who faces a contested primary as he seeks reelection, objected to the Obama administration's efforts to encourage a state-led movement for common academic standards. He said that Texas would be penalized for refusing to commit to national standards and tests and that it would cost the state more than $3 billion to implement the necessary changes. "If Washington were truly concerned about funding education with solutions that match local challenges, they would make the money available to states with no strings attached," Perry said in a statement.

Federal officials warn that many applicants will be turned down. But they say they are heartened that reforms are already in motion in several cities and states, citing various measures to aid public charter schools and revise teacher evaluation practices. "The fact that we've been able to get these changes before we've spent a dime, we think speaks to the fact the program is already a success," said Justin Hamilton, press secretary for the Education Department.

Some charter school advocates say that so far, reforms have been underwhelming. Race to the Top, Jeanne Allen of the pro-charter Center for Education Reform in the District said, "created a flurry of awareness and activity" for the independent public schools. "That's a net win," she said, "except it never resulted in any kind of accumulation of snow."

In the District, where there are few limits on charter schools and Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee is pushing in various ways to overhaul teaching, officials received funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help assemble their application for the federal reform grants. The foundation has awarded up to $250,000 apiece to the District and 24 states, not including Virginia and Maryland, for technical assistance.

The federal application is complex and time-consuming, requiring detailed information about accomplishments and goals. Among the categories, the scoring rubric awards up to 58 points for "improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance" and up to 25 for "ensuring equitable distribution of effective teachers and principals." A perfect bid would earn 500 points.

For the District, a federal grant could be worth $20 million to $75 million. For Maryland and Virginia, $150 million to $250 million is at stake.

Virginia Education Department spokesman Charles Pyle said that the administrations of former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D) and Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) both had input on the state's application.

Maryland initially sought to compete in the first round. But the state reconsidered after the Gates foundation turned down its request for technical assistance funding, said State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick. The foundation, Grasmick said, was concerned that Maryland makes it too easy for teachers to obtain tenure.

Grasmick predicted an effort to pass school reform legislation, with an eye to June's round-two deadline. "We want this to be a comprehensive reform effort, not just chasing the money," Grasmick said. "It really is going to take some time to do what I consider to be a very credible application."

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