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Race to the Top District Competition Received 371 Applications

Guest blog post by Jaclyn Zubrzycki @jzubrzycki

The U.S. Department of Education received 371 applications for the latest round of the Race to the Top competition, which focused on individual school districts or consortia of smaller districts rather than states. As Politics K-12 reported, the 371 applications represented 1,189 school districts. Close to 900 districts and consortia had expressed an intent to apply back in August when the final rules for the competition were announced.

A number of districts had trouble getting their unions to sign off on the Race to the Top proposals, which I wrote about for this week's issue of Education Week. (You can find more details about those squabbles here.) Two California districts, Glendale and Los Angeles, submitted applications anyway. The requirement for union sign-off was new to this iteration of the competition, and may have been a lesson learned from previous federal grant programs, including Race to the Top: When unions don't agree to grant requirements beforehand, programs sometimes don't get implemented as intended.

In an interesting twist, in the Central Unified school district in California, the union's president Gaye Lewis signed off on the district's application—and then stepped down because the union's members were upset with the decision.

Of course, some districts also didn't apply for reasons unrelated to unions. Burlington, Vt., superintendent Jeanne Collins said that her district had simply decided that "jumping through the hoops" and spending time and money on the complicated application was not worth it. And some districts where there's been notable district-union contention—Chicago, for example—did submit applications with union sign-off.

At least two, Clark County, Nev., and Fresno Unified in California, had dramatic last-minute resolutions to their battles just before the extended deadline. The Fresno story was particularly dramatic, featuring ministers joining the city's mayor to encourage the union to sign on. Superintendent Michael Hanson told me the district would not have been able to apply if it had not been for the extension granted due to Hurricane Sandy.

Race to the Top received a lot of press attention in some cities just before the deadline. Sacramento superintendent Jonathan Raymond wrote a public letter criticizing the program. Especially in California districts, where school funding was a major issue in the election, the applications were somewhat politicized right before election day. Here's an article from the San Francisco Chronicle and a heated response from the union. This Huffington Post article's headline certainly seems to implicate the Los Angeles union. (For what it's worth, United Teachers Los Angeles's president Warren Fletcher is on the record as saying the union didn't want to apply because they believe the program is not sustainable, not because of evaluations. He pointed me to this article in Nonprofit Quarterly criticizing LAUSD superintendent John Deasy for counting on philanthropic dollars to support the school district. And teacher evaluations in Los Angeles are subject to a court's ruling already.)

The RTT-D competition encouraged districts to personalize learning for their students. It will be interesting to see what districts and consortia have developed and which ones get the awards.

Klint Willert, a superintendent of Marshall Public Schools in rural southwestern Minnesota, said his district had applied with a group of five districts, five of which work together regularly. He said their personalized learning plan "established a vision of creating an experience where learning is the constant and time is the variable." Some larger districts focused on one particular grade range or subject area: Miami's plan focuses on middle school math.

I heard some union officials expressing concern about the ability of technology to actually personalize learning. (The Oakland Education Association's president Trish Gorham said using computers and technology to personalize learning is "an irony of language.")

The federal Education Department has said that somewhere between 15 and 25 grants will ultimately be awarded.

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