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Virginia's effort for Race to the Top funds modest so far

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 8, 2010; B01

For a school reform derby with $4 billion at stake, Virginia is proposing experiments with teacher performance pay, a modest expansion of charter schools and other steps in line with the Obama administration's education agenda.

But analysts say the state still looks like a dark horse to win a share of Race to the Top funding -- an assessment state officials do not strongly dispute.

The legislature in Richmond, unlike others, passed no bills meant to improve Virginia's chances in the grant competition.

Other states are getting attention for provocative proposals to improve teaching and turn around low-performing schools. Florida, Louisiana and a handful of other states intend to make growth in student achievement count for at least 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation, which many teachers say raises questions about the fair use of test scores.

In California, a new law enacted in connection with the competition gives dissatisfied parents the power to shake up a school through petition. In the District, Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee also has drawn notice -- and criticism -- as she seeks to rejuvenate the troubled city schools by changing teacher tenure rules and other measures.

Virginia's application, submitted last month, does not go as far. It is premised on a belief that the state's nearly 1,900 public schools are moving essentially in the right direction.

"Of course I think we're deserving of any funding called Race to the Top," said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia I. Wright. "Whether our application will be competitive remains to be seen. I certainly hope it will."

Maryland officials, who also consider their public schools top-notch, bypassed the first round of the competition to concentrate on a second-round application in June.

President Obama launched Race to the Top last summer with funding through the economic stimulus law. He aimed to spur innovation and, in something of a departure from Democratic Party orthodoxy, challenge the thinking of unions, school boards and administrators.

Last month, he visited a Fairfax County school to propose opening the competition to local school systems and providing an additional $1.35 billion in funding.

Federal officials have made clear that in the first round, many applicants will be turned down. Bids will be judged on a 500-point rubric that reflects the policy priorities of Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

"There's only about seven or eight states that really presented plans, passed laws, took administrative actions to take their school reform to the next level," said Charles Barone of Democrats for Education Reform, a group that supports Race to the Top. "Virginia isn't one of them. They don't stand out."

Wright contends that Virginia can stand on its academic record, including strong results from various national tests as well as a school testing and accountability system that dates to the 1990s.

But the state's application carves at least some new ground with proposals that would cost about $350 million. It seeks to give local schools incentives to:

-- Develop "rigorous, transparent and fair" models for teacher and principal evaluations, taking into account student growth, among other factors.

-- Try performance pay for teachers and principals in some school systems.

-- Encourage charter school operators or other contractors to take over nine persistently low-achieving schools.

The state also seeks to double, to 18, the number of "governor's academies" that focus on science, technology, engineering and math.

It also would beef up a student-teacher data system that would track academic performance and provide real-time information to improve instruction.

Of the state's 132 school systems, 117 signed agreements to participate in the program if Virginia obtains funding. All of Northern Virginia's school systems signed on, expressing varying degrees of interest in specific parts of the application. Prince William County school officials indicated a desire to participate in almost all aspects of the proposal.

Virginia schools do not have collective bargaining for teacher contracts. But union officials have closely followed the funding application. The Virginia Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, signed a letter of support. That was a major step, given the application's performance pay proposal.

"It's a very big deal for us," said Betty Lambdin, a Virginia Education Association official. She said the union was consulted as the application was drafted in the waning weeks of the administration of Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D). The incoming administration of Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) also was consulted.

For union members, Lambdin said, "the big concerns are about tying principal and teacher evaluation and compensation to student achievement. I don't really have any objection to that. But the devil is in the details. How do you measure student progress? How do you measure student learning in significant, reliable ways?"

Those are among the major questions Obama hopes the competition will help answer.

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