Efforts to revamp schools by D.C., Maryland result in $325 million

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; B01

The Obama administration awarded Maryland and the District $325 million Tuesday for efforts to improve schools, a surprising double victory for the Washington region in an education reform contest that could reverberate in the fall elections.

Eight other states, most of them on the East Coast, also won shares of more than $3.3 billion in President Obama's Race to the Top grant competition. The initiative, which challenges labor unions and state and local leaders to upend the status quo in public education, has helped Obama foment innovation and test-drive ideas about performance pay and national standards that could lay the groundwork for a revision of the No Child Left Behind law.

"This is a breathtaking amount of reform," Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters. "What we're seeing is phenomenal courage around the country." Duncan said the winners were chosen by expert judges, using a score sheet that his department designed. Although Duncan was empowered to overrule their choices, he said he did not.

Critics have said that the contest, funded through the 2009 stimulus law, pushes proposals that are unproven and that some deserving states have been overlooked.

The grants of $75 million to the District and $250 million to Maryland will help the city and state ramp up plans to turn around struggling schools and measure the effectiveness of their teachers, in significant part through student achievement.

Beyond the classroom, the grants could become a factor in the reelection bids of D.C. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D). The incumbents, who face major challengers, put their prestige on the line this month to make personal pitches to Race to the Top judges for their education plans.

Fenty called the grant "fantastic news" that bolsters "efforts to create a world-class education system in the nation's capital." His main challenger in the Sept. 14 Democratic mayoral primary, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, said: "It is reassuring to know that the federal government recognizes the reforms the city put in place in 2007."

O'Malley said the grant validates Maryland's policies.

"It's our goal to continue implementing strategic reforms, allowing our students to not only compete with their peers across the nation, but to be globally competitive as well," he said. Andy Barth, a spokesman for challenger Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R), said the former governor would seek to ensure "that this new influx of dollars is spent in a cost-effective way."

Other winners were Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island. In March, Delaware was awarded $100 million and Tennessee $500 million in the first round of grants. Virginia finished far out of the running in the first round and skipped the second. Prominent among the states bypassed in both rounds were Louisiana and Colorado. The latter fell short despite enactment in May of a groundbreaking law that links decisions on teachers' tenure to student academic growth.

Frederick M. Hess, an education analyst for the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said in a news release he was "shocked" at the omission of the two states. "I think the exclusion of Louisiana and Colorado suggest legitimate concern over the way the program was conceived, the criteria that was designed and the judging that was executed," Hess said. In a new study for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Hess ranked New Orleans and Denver among the top four cities for fostering a climate for school innovation.

Duncan told reporters that he was sorry that he couldn't fund Colorado, Louisiana and some others.

"We just simply didn't have the resources," he said. The administration is asking Congress for another $1.35 billion to extend the contest, and there are signs that House and Senate Democrats are willing to appropriate at least some of that.

Maryland and the District each received 450 points on a scale of 500 from the judges, finishing just behind Rhode Island and ahead of Georgia, an outcome few analysts had expected. Maryland, in particular, had been viewed as something of a dark horse.

What vaulted Maryland's bid into the top tier, said State Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, was a new state law, coupled with a state Board of Education vote, that will make student achievement growth count for half of a teacher's annual evaluation.

Some labor leaders and educators, particularly in Montgomery County, have raised questions about the formula. "It is very controversial," Grasmick said. But she added that she was "excited" about the changes.

The grant will help Maryland develop its education data networks, overhaul teacher evaluations and expand a "breakthrough center" to oversee intervention in the lowest-performing schools, many of them concentrated in Prince George's County and Baltimore.

Among the state's 24 school systems, those in Montgomery and Frederick counties chose not to participate in the grant and will not directly receive any of the funds.

The D.C. grant will support an overhaul of schools underway since Fenty took over the system and named Michelle A. Rhee chancellor in 2007. It also will fund improvement measures in 34 of the city's independent public charter schools. This year, Rhee and the Washington Teachers' Union agreed on a contract that includes teacher performance pay, a deal that attracted national notice.

Staff writers Aaron C. Davis, Bill Turque and John Wagner contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company