- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 14, 2009

With states jockeying for extra school dollars from the economic stimulus, Education Secretary Arne Duncan reminded them Tuesday the point is to help students do better.

Cash-strapped states are competing for $5 billion in grants from the economic stimulus for changes the Obama administration wants, such as charter schools and teacher pay based on student performance.

“It’s really not about the money - it’s about pushing a strong reform agenda that’s going to improve student achievement,” Mr. Duncan said in an interview with the Associated Press.

States can’t even apply for the money yet. Still, nine states have changed their laws or made budget decisions to improve their standing. The latest is California, where a bill was signed Sunday allowing student test scores to be used to evaluate teachers.

Mr. Duncan said the moves are encouraging. Still, he said states will have to do more than make promises.

“We’re going to invest in those states that aren’t just talking the talk but that are walking the walk,” he said. “If folks are doing this to chase money, it’s for the wrong reasons.”

Most of the action has been on charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently of local school boards.

Charter school restrictions have now been eased in Louisiana, Illinois, Tennessee, Delaware and Indiana, and budget cuts for charter schools were defeated in Ohio, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

The administration has also pressured states that prohibit student test scores from being used to evaluate teachers. Those states are Wisconsin, Nevada and, until Sunday, California. Wisconsin lawmakers are considering a change, while Nevada officials seem unlikely to act.

New York has a similar prohibition on using test scores in teacher tenure decisions, but it expires next year.

Many of President Obama’s education priorities are controversial, especially among teachers’ unions, which make up an influential segment of his Democratic base.

The $5 billion grant fund, part of the stimulus law enacted this year, is seen as Mr. Obama’s big opportunity to overhaul schools during the next few years. Mr. Obama wanted to use the stimulus both to help schools ride out the recession and to try to transform the federal government’s role in education.

The fund is a fraction of the $100 billion for schools provided by the stimulus. But the $5 billion dwarfs all the discretionary money Mr. Duncan’s predecessors received combined for their own priorities.

Moreover, the fund has taken on even more importance because in many states the rest of the stimulus money is being spent to fill budget holes - not on innovations wanted by Mr. Obama.

Mr. Duncan pointed out that the administration has even more money to award, another $5 billion, from other grant programs that can be used for similar priorities.

“We want states to start thinking comprehensively about all these potential opportunities to bring scarce dollars where they’re pushing a strong reform agenda,” he said.

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