Obama to seek $1.35 billion more for Race to the Top program

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 19, 2010; A03

President Obama is slated to visit a Fairfax County school Tuesday to announce plans to seek $1.35 billion in his next budget to expand his signature education initiative to improve schools.

Obama plans to go to Graham Road Elementary School in Falls Church, which the White House calls a low-income but high-achieving school, to signal his intention to expand his Race to the Top program. The federal initiative uses the lure of grants to encourage school districts to raise standards, make better use of data to track student achievement, and take more forceful steps to intervene in failing schools.

The $4.35 billion effort was enacted last year as part of the $787 billion economic stimulus plan, marking one of the largest federal expenditures ever on the nation's public schools.

Even though money from the first year of funding is just now moving toward being awarded to states, Obama administration officials credit it with prompting education policy changes in many parts of the country.

States must compete for a slice of the federal money, and the first deadline for applications is Tuesday. The promise of federal money has prodded 11 states to revamp their laws to allow for more charter schools, for new plans to remake failing schools, and to create more incentives to attract better teachers.

Also, 48 states and the District have joined in an effort to develop a common core of rigorous educational standards to replace the current system in which states have wildly different benchmarks for what should be taught in school.

"We want to challenge everyone -- parents, teachers, school administrators -- to raise standards, by having the best teachers and principals, by tying student achievement to assessments of teachers, by making sure there is a focus on low-performing schools," Obama said in a statement released by the White House on Monday.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the program has attracted applications from 30 states. By extending the initiative, he said, "we have an opportunity to create incentives for far-reaching improvement in our nation's schools."

Under the planned expansion, school districts -- not just states -- would be eligible to compete for the increased federal aid.

It remains to be seen what kind of reception Obama's plan will receive in Congress and from states, which have the primary responsibility for financing and running the nation's schools.

While Race to the Top has piqued the interest of many states and school districts, others have turned their back on the prospect of new federal money, calling the reform agenda attached to it an intrusion on local educational prerogatives.

Thousands of school districts have declined to take part in the competition for the federal money, while some states have balked at the emphasis on charter schools. Texas is among the states that have decided not to compete, effectively declining to go for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid.

Meanwhile, given the nation's huge budget deficit, some lawmakers may object to the hefty price tag. Also, some teachers unions object to the call for performance pay and more tightly linking student performance to teacher evaluations.

Obama administration officials have said the budget, which is to be unveiled Feb. 1, will emphasize fiscal austerity. At the same time, however, budget officials have said the president will try to preserve investments in areas he deems crucial to the nation's economic future, including education.

For now, federal officials have not said how many applications would be funded in the first round, but with 30 applicants, "it will be a very tight competition," a senior administration official said.

The first awards are to be made in April. The second deadline for applications is set for June, with those awards coming sometime in the fall.

Officials who briefed reporters Monday said they envision the program being extended for at least several years. "There is no definite end date or cutoff," one official said.

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