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Race to the Top Insights: Part 1

I spent the morning in a U.S. Department of Education technical-assistance planning seminar on Race to the Top, and have picked up a lot of interesting tidbits. Many states are in attendance—including Hawaii, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Dakota, and Tennessee (including education commissioner Tim Webb), just to name a few. Interestingly, Texas is also in attendance, I'm told.

The seminar will continue well into the afternoon, but so far, here are the insights I've picked up about this $4 billion competition:

  • Race to the Top Director Joanne Weiss emphasized that there will be a lot of losers in Phase 1 of the application, so states shouldn't worry if they want to wait until the second round of competition. "We promise there will be plenty of money left in Phase 2," she said.
  • When states put in their Race to the Top applications, they don't necessarily have to spend money they may win on all of the initiatives embedded in those applications. The Education Department envisions states will use other federal grants to supplement these efforts, too. But Weiss emphasized that states will be held accountable for what they promise in their plans.
  • There are a lot of questions from states about teachers' union buy-in, with many representatives making clear that they have concerns about how willing unions will be to support many of their education reform initiatives. Apparently, in at least one state, local unions are pressuring school district leaders not to sign on to support the state reform plan unless the unions also agree.
  • Since local school districts must sign up with a state to be entitled to their share of the Race to the Top money, it's been noted here that this may result in a misguided incentive to see that fewer districts sign up, so the money won't be spread so thin. (Half of each winning state's Race to the Top grant goes to school districts based on the Title I formula; the other half is spent entirely at the state's discretion.)
  • Most interesting question of the day so far: Can we place Race to the Top funds in an endowment, to fund future initiatives? That elicited chuckles from the Education Department officials, who then said, "No!"
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