Washington area vies for Round 2 of Race to the Top funds

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 19, 2010; B01

With a proposed teacher contract that includes performance pay, the District aims to strengthen its case for a share of $4 billion in President Obama's Race to the Top school reform program.

Maryland hopes to become competitive through a plan to link student achievement growth to teacher evaluations. But Virginia is considering whether to pull out after a weak showing in the first round.

Obama launched Race to the Top last year to encourage states to take steps toward performance pay, expand public charter schools and improve low-achieving schools. The funding, provided through the stimulus law, is being distributed through a competition that the Education Department designed. Most states, officials say, will not get any money.

The Washington region's competitors, like states elsewhere, are poring over contest entries, voluminous written comments from judges, videotaped interviews and other records compiled in the round won last month by Delaware and Tennessee.

The District finished 16th and Virginia 31st out of 41 initial competitors. Maryland sat out the first round. Bids for the second round are due June 1. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said there might be 10 to 15 winners this time.

Will one of them be local?

"On the merits, D.C. has the best case of the three," said Andrew J. Rotherham, an education policy analyst and former member of the Virginia Board of Education. "D.C. has a fairly good chance. Maryland got a bit of a wake-up call. Virginia's application wasn't strong, and so its finish wasn't surprising."

The contest puts a premium, Obama administration officials say, on bold innovation as well as buy-in from teachers unions and local school boards. Analysts say those goals are often incompatible.

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) told Duncan in a budget hearing last week that her state had been penalized in the first round for proposing an overhaul of teacher pay and evaluation that many union affiliates and local districts would not support. She said that obtaining statewide backing would force officials to water down the plan.

"There are obviously many entrenched interests," she said. "This is a battle. It's not a waltz."

In Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist's veto Thursday of a bill that would have abolished core tenure protections for new teachers and expanded performance pay showed that the reform movement Obama has unleashed might be hitting political limits.

Florida, with a Republican governor and legislature, is widely regarded as one of the most aggressive states in defining the effectiveness of teachers on student academic performance. The state finished fourth in the first round of Race to the Top, with a plan that union leaders assailed. Now the question is whether teachers will have more influence in Florida's reforms.

These national currents are shaping how officials in the Washington region approach the second round. The District could win $20 million to $75 million. At stake for Maryland and Virginia are potential prizes of $150 million to $250 million each.

D.C. officials face two challenges. They must whittle their initial $112 million grant proposal to $75 million. And they hope to obtain endorsement from the Washington Teachers' Union, which had withheld backing for the city's reform plan in the first round during contract talks with Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

The announcement this month of a long-awaited labor agreement, pending ratification from teachers, could smooth the way. The deal includes a voluntary performance-pay program, with bonuses tied to growth in standardized test scores and other academic measures.

"We're hopeful that we'll get union support this time around," said D.C. State Superintendent of Education Kerri L. Briggs.

That might not be easy. Debate continues over whether teacher layoffs in the fall were justified. Union leaders asked a judge last week to reopen a lawsuit that seeks to reinstate 266 teachers who lost their jobs.

Maryland could benefit from its decision to skip the first round. The state released a draft proposal last week for Race to the Top in an effort to obtain local endorsements. In addition, the legislature approved a bill backed by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) to extend probation for new teachers to three years from the current two.

The Maryland plan does not appear to go as far on performance pay as proposals in the District, Florida, Louisiana and other states. But the plan indicates that the State Board of Education is expected next month to approve a rubric that would link teacher evaluations to gains in test scores.

The rubric would be tried in four to eight school systems in 2011 and launched statewide the next year. State Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick wants half of the evaluations to be based on growth in student learning and half on teacher skills and knowledge.

"We have to be competitive," Grasmick said. "We'll never get [a grant] if we're not bold."

She said the state must flesh out recent legislative action that calls for student achievement growth to play a "significant" role in evaluations.

Grasmick said Maryland could be penalized if contest judges ask what "significant" means and if state officials are forced to reply that interpretations vary from place to place. "That isn't strong," Grasmick said. "We have to be more precise."

However, state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's) said that elements of Grasmick's proposal appear to conflict with the legislation. "My feeling is that some sections of it have to be redone," he said.

Like Maryland, Virginia ranks highly on national student achievement measures.

But Virginia's first-round bid was panned by contest judges who found its reform proposals too modest. The state's application received 325 points on a scale of 500, placing it ahead of Wyoming (319) and behind New Mexico (325).

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) pushed the Virginia legislature for changes in the law to promote expansion of charter schools, but the measure lawmakers approved was not far-reaching. There also appears to be reluctance in Virginia to replace the Standards of Learning with academic standards common to many states. That position also could hurt Virginia's chances.

State officials are weighing whether to reapply. "We have not made a determination yet on how we're going to proceed with Race to the Top," said Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education.

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