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Symposium: Federal Grants Spur State Involvement

New Orleans, La.

The Obama administration's approach to federal education grants has marked an unprecedented and comprehensive change in the way the federal government tries to influence education policy and practice, from targeting specific populations to attempting broad systemic change.

That was the consensus among researchers and state officials participating in a symposium at the Association of Education Finance and Policy conference here this morning. The panel included WestEd researchers tasked with monitoring and helping states—including California and Michigan—meet requirements for Race to the Top, the School Improvement Fund, and charter school grants.

The current iteration of competitive grants under the Obama administration is more aligned to build on each other, than federal grants historically have been, according to Martin Orland, WestEd's director of evaluation and policy research. Race to the Top's core requirements to establish a comprehensive student longitudinal data system, for example, is bolstered by a separate state competitive grant; its call for college- and career-ready standards is paired with grants to develop assessments; and money from the School Improvement Fund (which is competitive at the district level) mirrors Race to the Top's focus on the 5 percent of poorest-performing schools in each state.

"Regardless of what you think of the wisdom of these policies, one thing is clear; it certainly has gotten the states to take notice," Orland said. "It's like saying 'Well, I can't take over the state and put my own people in there, but I can make it very attractive for the states to do what I want.'"

The timing of these competitions, most of which were introduced as part of the 2009 fiscal stimulus package, gave the federal government stronger leverage to "get states to change nearly everything they do in education," said Jannelle Kubinec, WestEd's director of federal, state, and special programs. Kubinec worked with California on its multiple, failed applications for Race to the Top.

"It came with $4.3 billion when most states in the country—except those sitting on an oil reserve or something—were dramatically cutting their education budgets," Kubinec said. "This was in some ways like what we've seen in districts with [tight budgets]: You see the districts say, 'Money good, apply for money!' and then later say 'What do we do about all these requirements?' What we see in monitoring now is there's a lot of things people said they'd be able to do, and they aren't able to do."

So far, the grants have led states to get much more involved in district and even school-level policy decisions, according to John Rice, a senior research associate at WestEd who works with Michigan to implement its school improvement fund grants.

Rice said the state initially visited the 55 schools with improvement grants on site every week. While that has now tapered off to monthly site visits, the state has expanded the programs and interventions required by the grants to cover all schools performing in the lowest 5 percent of the state, even if they don't receive school improvement money.

"When [Elementary and Secondary Education Act] reauthorization eventually happens, I wouldn't be surprised to see Race to the Top used as the basis to move Title I to more of a competitive process," Kubinec said.

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