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Conn. Chief Says Race to Top Could Produce 'Bad Policy'

At the annual Washington gathering of the Council of Chief State School Officers this morning, Mark K. McQuillan, Connecticut's education commissioner, told two Obama administration officials he's worried that the $4 billion Race to the Top competition could result in "bad policy."

During a session on the administration's proposed fiscal 2011 budget for education with Roberto Rodriguez, from the White House's Domestic Policy Council, and Robert Gordon, from the Office of Management and Budget, Mr. McQuillan raised the issue with the high-stakes Race to the Top competition.

Connecticut applied in round one of the competition, but was not chosen as one of the 16 finalists. Utilizing so much political capital and expending so much capacity to propose, negotiate, and convince school districts to sign on has been a monumental task, even in his small state.

"If you are going to sit and and push states in this direction with no results, I think this is potentially bad policy," he said during the roundtable discussion. "You could be taking state agencies through this process three or four times with no outcome."

Mr. McQuillan was referring not only to the two rounds of Race to the Top, but also to the possibility of yet another if Congress approves the administration's proposal to fund a round three with $1.35 billion in the upcoming federal budget.

Mr. Rodriguez told the chiefs that "it is not lost on us the amount of energy, political capital, human capital, and financial capital" that the states have invested in competing for a piece of the prize.

After the Q & A, I caught up with Mr. McQuillan, who elaborated on his concerns.

"Effectively, people have to go through at least two rounds of this to possibly no effect," he said. The reforms his state is pursuing, he said, would be difficult to enact without some of the federal money.

He'll have a chance to share this same concern later this morning with U.S. Secretary of Secretary Arne Duncan, who'll appear before the chiefs shortly. I'll update this post if there are any good exchanges.

UPDATE: The state chiefs' roundtable with Sec. Duncan is over, and let me just say, first, that they made for a much less adoring crowd than the governors did back in February.

There were tough questions on flexibility for rural states—especially when it comes to using one of the four mandated turnaround models for the lowest-performing schools—from Denise Juneau, Montana's chief. Virginia Superintendent of Public Instruction Patricia Wright asked the secretary if the department is willing to give states flexibility on developing new assessments, much as it has indicated it would when it comes to adopting new academic standards.

To me, the liveliest exchange came when Alabama chief Joseph Morton asked Mr. Duncan to spell out, explicitly, how crucial having a charter school law is for having a shot at any of the Race to the Top money. Mr. Morton reminded the secretary of his message last summer at a gathering at the Hunt Institute in North Carolina—according to Mr. Morton's memory of events, Mr. Duncan said that states without charter laws "need not apply" for Race to the Top.

Mr. Morton waged a fierce fight in his state over the last few months to enact charter school legislation, but the statewide teachers' union soundly defeated the measure. Not a single Democrat voted for it in the state legislature's two education committees, he said. Then, last week, Mr. Morton said the union put out a statement to its members across Alabama that the secretary had told the union in a private meeting that he didn't care about charter schools.

Mr. Morton said he was confused by the messages. "Do we have to have charter schools? We tried and we failed."

Sec. Duncan, as he usually does, cited his support not for charter schools, but for good charter schools. He also acknowledged that states without charter laws, like Alabama, are at a competitive disadvantage in Race to the Top, when 40 of the 500 total points are based on how friendly states are to charter schools. But the secretary insisted that his message has been clear from the beginning on charters: They are an important part of the solution to fixing underperforming schools and providing more choices to parents and students, though not the sole answer.

Mr. Morton told me afterward that Mr. Duncan offered to write an op-ed for an Alabama newspaper to make it clear where he stands on charters.

"I'm going to take him up on it," Mr. Morton said.

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