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D.C., Virginia seek $450 million in federal education funds

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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

District and Virginia officials formally made their case for more than $450 million in federal education funds Tuesday, asserting in sometimes glowing terms that their reform efforts to date make them deserving of money from President Obama's Race to the Top initiative to overhaul public schools.

As 40 states and the District met Tuesday's deadline for submitting applications to the U.S. Department of Education, Obama journeyed to a Fairfax County elementary school to announce that he will seek an expansion of the $4.3 billion program that would allow individual school districts to compete for the money.

"We're going to raise the bar for all our students and take bigger steps towards closing the achievement gap that denies so many students, especially black and Latino students, a fair shot at their dreams," Obama told a group of sixth-graders at Graham Road Elementary, where a heavy concentration of students from immigrant and low-income families have done well academically.

Some states, including Texas, have passed up the chance for new federal money, calling the Obama reform agenda an intrusion into local prerogatives. Maryland officials have decided to wait until a second round of applications later this year.

Race to the Top offers money in exchange for a commitment to the president's education reform program. That includes more challenging academic standards, better testing to measure what students know, rigorous evaluation systems for teachers and principals, plans for turning around failing schools, cutting-edge data systems to track progress, and state laws that establish "successful conditions for high-performing charter schools and other innovative schools."

"The District of Columbia boasts the nation's most exciting, dynamic reform agenda," says the opening section of the District's 189-page application, which cites rising test scores and a new rigorous teacher evaluation system. The D.C. public school system and 30 public charter schools collaborated on the bid, which seeks $112 million to turn around failing schools, strengthen the ability to gather data on students and toughen teacher evaluation systems so that 50 percent of all District educators' annual reviews would be based on student achievement.

The application, drafted by a working group of D.C. education officials, said receipt of the grant would be "a political win" for the District, "signifying endorsement of difficult decisions about removal [of ineffective teachers] that have already been made and are planned to continue."

One potential weakness in the District's application is Washington Teachers' Union President George Parker's refusal to sign the document. The U.S. Education Department considers the support of union leaders -- along with other officials -- a reflection of an application's overall strength. Teachers unions in many cities, including Cleveland, Boston and Philadelphia, have signed on.

Parker cited his opposition to the District public schools' new IMPACT evaluation system for educators as the reason for his refusal to support the application. Under IMPACT, introduced last fall, standardized test scores will comprise 50 percent of the evaluations this year for reading and math teachers in grades 4 through 8. Those who fail to meet minimum scores could be fired.

Parker said giving a 50 percent weight to test scores on evaluations is arbitrary, especially when the District has failed to provide basic support to teachers in classrooms that often are in disarray.

"They need a safe, orderly, disciplined environment," Parker said. "In all fairness, I could not sign it."

Virginia officials made only a summary of the state's application available. The state is seeking $350 million to pursue goals similar to the District's, including strengthening data systems and classroom technology and "rigorous, transparent and fair" teacher and principal evaluations. The Virginia Education Association, which represents about 60,000 teachers and staff, supported the application, according to the summary.

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