- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The second time is a $75 million charm for D.C. schools.

The D.C. school system and nine state applicants, including Maryland and New York, learned Tuesday they have won huge pots of money in the $3.4 billion second round of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative.

“This is fantastic news for the future of the District of Columbia and its kids,” Mayor Adrian M. Fenty said. “For the past four years, there is nothing that has been a higher priority than public education for my administration and we are both thrilled and grateful that President Obama and [Education] Secretary Arne Duncan are showing support through this grant for our reform efforts to create a world-class education system in the nation’s capital.”

City officials said the District was boosted to the top by reforms that tie teacher performance to student progress, a new teachers’ contract that institutes a ground-breaking merit pay plan and a flourishing charter-school movement.

Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan have been urging state and local officials to work more collaboratively with charter-school proponents, and their support led some states, such as New York, to make lifting caps on charter-school growth a part of their winning strategy.

The Fenty administration touted the fact that D.C. public charter schools are integral to “demonstrating significant progress in raising achievement and closing gaps,” which are key goals of the Race initiative. Others include tracking teacher and student performances, and rewarding effective teachers and principals.

In the application, D.C. officials specifically lauded charter schools for continuing “to offer increasingly rigorous school models, programs and practices” to help close the gap.

Data show that charter schools and D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) are both making measurable improvement when it comes to closing the achievement gap, and charter students are outperforming their conventional counterparts.

Sixty percent of the economically disadvantaged seventh- and eighth-graders in D.C. charter schools are judged “proficient” on the citywide DC CAS standardized test, according to results for the 2009-10 school year released earlier this month. D.C. Public Schools achieved a 42 percent “proficient” rate among its poorer seventh- and eighth-graders.

In contrast, for the 2006-07 school year just 37 percent of the poorer fourth- and fifth-graders in charter schools were judged “proficient” on DC CAS, 23 percentage points lower than what those same students would achieve three years later. In that school year, 35 percent of poorer fourth- and fifth-graders in public schools passed the proficiency test.

In the federal contest, D.C. ranked sixth, tied with Maryland, among the 36 applications for the Phase 2 money. Massachusetts ranked in first place, and Alabama pulled up in the last spot. Virginia opted out.

The other states to get Race to the Top money in this round are Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island. All told, 25,000 schools, 1 million teachers and 13 million students will benefit from the money, the Education Department said.

In Phase 1, in spring 2010, only Delaware and Tennessee met the federal government’s standards for the money by scoring more than 440 points on a 500-point scale.

The biggest winner was New York, which will receive $700 million, which was apportioned among the states according to their size. Mr. Duncan told reporters the Education Department, which “simply ran out of money” in this round, hopes to have a third round next year and award other state applicants up to $1.3 billion.

The announcement of the new funding comes as reforms kick in for the first full D.C. school year, and the Michelle A. Rhee administration hopes to the changes will help quicken the pace for closing the achievement gap.

“The reforms now in place — the new teacher contract, the first year of IMPACT [evaluations] and personnel changes based on the ratings and strong school-based leadership — will help us tremendously as we work toward building on the progress we’ve made,” said Rhee spokeswoman Jennifer Calloway. “We embrace high expectations for ourselves and our students — and DCPS is focused on both raising the bar and closing the gap.”

Advocates said the success of charter schools proves that the D.C. School Reform Act of 1995, formulated by the Clinton White House and the then-new Republican-led Congress to broaden school choice and stimulate competition in the public sector, is paying off.

“The charter school leaders have worked untold hours to ensure student success. That is why parents are choosing them, and why there are huge waiting lists of students trying to get in,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led the chamber when that D.C. school law was passed and pushed hard for the reforms, told The Washington Times. “The answer is to allow fast expansion of these successful schools, and elimination of schools that fail.”

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