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$400 Million Race to Top Contest for Districts Starts Now

The U.S. Department of Education today is kicking off the $400 million Race to the Top competition for districts after making big changes to the contest rules to assuage school board members and prod more large districts to apply.

Federal officials threw out a proposal to require competing districts to implement performance evaluations of school board members, and raised the maximum grant amount for the largest districts to $40 million, from $25 million. In a nod to rural districts, the department lowered the number of students that must be served to 2,000 from 2,500 and is allowing a group of 10 districts to apply regardless of the number of students.

The changes were made after the department received more than 475 comments when the draft rules were released in May.

According to final contest rules announced today, awards will start at $5 million for the smallest districts up to the $40 million cap; the money comes from the federal fiscal 2012 budget. From 15 to 25 awards are expected to be made in December. Applications are due Oct. 30.

The competition comes as the Education Department, which has focused on state-level reform in previous Race to the Top contests, switches gears and tries to use money to advance its education ideas at the local level. As another example, the Education Department is pursuing district-level waivers under the No Child Left Behind Act geared towards helping districts in states that, for whatever reason, are not getting or do not want a state-level waiver.

"We want to help schools become engines of innovation through personalized learning...," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a statement. "The Race to the Top-District competition will help us meet that goal."

Contest Rules and Grading System

In addition to meeting the 2,000-student threshold, to be eligible to compete a district must also implement evaluation systems for teachers, principals, and superintendents by the 2014-15 school year.

Districts must also address how they will improve teaching and learning using personalized "strategies, tools, and supports."

In fact, this personalized learning component makes up 40 points on the 200-point grading scale. The rest of the grading scale is:

  • Prior academic track record and how transparent the district is (such as if it makes school-level expenditures readily available to the public), 45 points;
  • "Vision" for reform, 40 points;
  • Continuous improvement (having a strategy and performance measures for long-term improvement), 30 points;
  • District policy and infrastructure (such as giving building leaders more autonomy), 25 points;
  • Budget and sustainability, 20 points.

Ten bonus points are available for districts that collaborate with public and private partners to help improve the social, emotional and behavioral needs of students.

After districts firm up their applications, states and mayors must be given 10 business days (up from 5 days in the proposed rules) to comment on the proposals. However, the contest rules don't require districts to make any changes with the feedback they're given.

A Mix of Awards

The department wants to ensure that not just districts within existing Race to the Top states win. (If you remember, there were 12 state-level winners that shared a $4 billion education-improvement prize in 2010.) And, federal officials want to ensure that not just large, urban districts win. So districts will be entered in different categories depending on whether they are rural or not, and whether they are in a Race to the Top state or not. The department will make awards to top scorers in each category as long as the winners hit some to-be-determined bar for high quality. This means it's possible that a high-scoring district may lose out because the department wants to spread out the winners.

What remains unclear is just how much interest there will be in such a competition. There was plenty of unhappiness with the draft rules. Various state officials were annoyed that they wouldn't have more time to review district applications. School boards were more than annoyed that they would be subject to new performance evaluations. (The department still thinks that is in general a good idea, but they don't think this contest is the place to get at it.) Small districts complained that the 2,500-student threshold was too high, while large districts complained that the maximum $25 million grant was too low to make it worth their while. Even Richard "Sweatin' to the Oldies" Simmons weighed in (on the lack of physical education as a component in the application).

With the original $25 million award cap, Los Angeles Superintendent John E. Deasy has said that the department was asking a lot for a relatively small amount of money. And officials from rural districts, which can band together and apply as part of a larger
consortia, have said they may not have the resources to apply for a complex federal grant.

So will the department's changes be enough to spur a lot of interest? We may know more after August 30, when districts are supposed to let the Education Department know that they plan to compete in the latest Race to the Top.

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