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School officials fear a federal policy takeover

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By expanding its "Race to the Top" education grant contest to the district level, the Obama administration has left some state education chiefs feeling elbowed out, saying Washington is trying to establish itself as the national school board.

"They're calling for the local leadership to report directly to the federal government on reform strategies, essentially making the leader of the U.S. Department of Education the superintendent of the United States," said Pennsylvania Superintendent of Education Ronald Tomalis. "There is something out there called the 10th Amendment. States have the predominant role in driving education policy. This concept upsets that apple cart quite a bit."

Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters earlier this week that states can't thwart individual districts, or groups of districts that decide to work together, from applying to the program, which doles out multimillion-dollar awards in exchange for reform plans meeting federal approval.

Mr. Duncan's department now will be in a position to, for the first time, affect policy at individual schools.

Previous rounds of the program have focused solely on broad reform plans, with Mr. Tomalis and fellow education leaders crafting proposals designed for statewide implementation.

Now, not only can districts bypass their states, but multiple districts from any number of states can pool together, agree on necessary reforms and split the money if they win.

Mr. Duncan has placed virtually no limits on the size or geographic scope of those consortia, telling reporters Tuesday that his department is "wide open" to any and all possibilities. One of the few restrictions is that all applicants for the $400 million pot must serve at least 2,500 students, and at least 40 percent of those students must come from low-income families.

By cutting state education departments out of the equation, Mr. Tomalis and others fear that districts could wind up with reform plans that are in conflict with state education priorities, or possibly even state law.

"What happens when state law, state policy, diverts from what a superintendent wants to do for this grant?" Mr. Tomalis said.

In several states, districts are now free to thumb their noses at the policies of their governor.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, for example, has resisted Race to the Top, arguing that it represents federal intrusion into local classrooms. But now, the Houston Independent School District, the largest system in the state, plans to participate.

"They've said they'll apply for this money. We think that if they apply for this money, they really need to read the fine print closely to make sure they aren't putting themselves in conflict with state law," said Debbie Ratcliffe, spokesman for the Texas Education Agency. "There has been a lot of opposition from our governor about the growing federal involvement in schools ... now their scope has expanded significantly."

While it is meeting a harsh backlash from some state education leaders and Republicans in Congress, other states are cautiously optimistic that the program could aid cash-strapped districts.

"To us, this is another signal that the administration's overall approach is to make funding available to districts and to states as part of its commitment to reform," said J.C. Considine, spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Other states, including Indiana, are leaving the decision of whether to apply entirely in the hands of district superintendents and school boards.

"We really are a local-control state, and we want to give our districts flexibility," said Stephanie Sample, spokeswoman for the Indiana Department of Education.

While Indiana hasn't won previous rounds of Race to the Top, she said the Hoosier State has implemented many of the proposed reforms anyway.

But critics believe the district-level approach could undermine those state-led efforts, while also representing a major shift in the administration's education policy.

"They've driven their grant programs through the states, but now they're saying they want to deal directly with a district. It's 180 degrees from what they've been doing since they got into office," said Mr. Tomalis.

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