- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Obama administration is taking its signature “Race to the Top” education grant competition to the micro level.

Individual school districts, or consortia of districts that decide to pool their resources and work together, now will be eligible for multimillion-dollar awards in exchange for detailed reform plans that meet the approval of the federal Education Department.

Previous rounds of the contest, which has doled out billions of dollars in grants to more than a dozen winners, have focused exclusively on states and have included K-12 systems and early learning initiatives.

But now district leaders will be allowed to bypass their state departments of education. The change could be especially important in states such as Texas, which thus far has refused to participate in the program.

“Race to the Top supports states that raise standards and commit to dramatically transforming their lowest-performing schools,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters on a conference call Tuesday afternoon. “I don’t think that a state can thwart a district’s application. We are asking folks at the district level, the superintendents, the heads of boards, the union leaders, to participate. … We have no idea how this will turn out geographically.”

Mr. Duncan said his department is “wide open” to all possibilities. Potential applicants could include a single school district, several districts within a state or dozens of districts from any number of states. One of the few restrictions is that all applicants must serve at least 2,500 students, and 40 percent of those students must be from low-income families and eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch subsidies.

About $400 million will be available, with the administration planning to award 20 grants ranging from $15 million to $25 million each. The amounts will differ depending on the number of students served by a winning district or consortium. Applications are due in October, with winners expected to be named in December.

But even before Mr. Duncan announced the program, Republicans in Congress attacked it as yet another Obama administration attempt to exert federal control over classrooms.

“The department’s proposal represents an unprecedented expansion of federal intrusion into local education decisions, adding to the boondoggle of bureaucracy already challenging teachers, principals and superintendents,” said Rep. Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House subcommittee on early childhood, elementary and secondary education.

“I urge the president stop dedicating more taxpayer dollars to new programs with questionable impact,” the California Republican said.

Among the criteria to win, applicants must have: college- and career-ready standards in place; evaluation systems for teachers, principals, superintendents and school boards implemented by 2014; and a “robust data system.”

The requirements that superintendents and school boards be evaluated is a first for the competition, which previously has required such reviews only for teachers and principals.

“Some people are making much ado about the superintendents being included in the evaluation system, but we say so what?” said Bruce Hunter, associate executive director of advocacy, policy and communications at the American Association of School Administrators.

Mr. Hunter said his organization supports the evaluation of superintendents and believes that if teachers are subjected to reviews, there is no reason district leaders shouldn’t be, too.

But without the umbrella of their state education agency, Mr. Hunter said some rural districts may simply lack the “administrative capacity” to develop winning applications and later implement the planned changes. That could lead rural districts across the county to pool together in a consortium, though the more districts involved, the less money each could receive.

In previous rounds, states were given extra points if they planned to implement the “Common Core” math and reading standards, set to go into effect by 2014. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia will adopt those standards, while others, including Texas and Alaska, have not.

Participation in Common Core, Mr. Duncan said, will have no bearing on the district-level contest.

“We want every district in America to think about applying,” he said.

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