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Aspen Institute to Help Some Race to Top Finalists

There's less than a week to go until the 16 states in contention for a piece of the $4 billion in Race to the Top prize money come to Washington to make their live pitches to a panel of judges, and some of those finalists are polishing their presentations with the help of the Aspen Institute.

The stakes are high for the finalists, especially since each scored above 400 points on a 500-point grading scale for the voluminous applications they submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said last week that any of the 16 could emerge as winners, so how states present their case to the judges next week could make or break their chances.

Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Colorado are among a select group of finalists that are taking the Aspen Institute up on its offer to provide feedback to the states on their presentations, according to spokespeople in those three states' education departments.

Ross Wiener, the executive director of the Aspen Institute's education and society program, declined to name the states that will do a dry run of their Race to the Top presentations. He also declined to say how many of the finalists were invited to receive Aspen's feedback.

"We told the states that we would do this off the record and with confidentiality," Mr. Wiener said in an interview.

Asked how Aspen selected the states, Mr. Wiener would only say that the organization had offered its help to those that it has "been in conversations with" for several months about Race to the Top.

Education Week queried several finalist states to see if Aspen had extended the invitation to them. Kentucky received no such offer, said Lisa Gross, the spokeswoman for the state's department of education. Neither did Georgia, said Kathy Cox, that state's schools chief.

"They didn't contact me," Ms. Cox said.

David Steiner, New York's commissioner of education, said he wasn't sure if Aspen had extended the invitation to his state, but said that "if we can do dry runs with good people, we will."

The Aspen Institute, a nonprofit organization that works in many public policy arenas, is well-known in education circles for its bipartisan commission on the No Child Left Behind Act and just last week issued a report calling for Congress to reauthorize the federal law.

Two interesting connections to note: Paul G. Pastorek, the state superintendent in Louisiana, which is one of the 16 Race to the Top finalists, serves on Aspen's NCLB commission. And Judy Wurtzel, who is the deputy assistant secretary for planning, evaluation and policy development in the U.S. Department of Education, served as the executive director of Aspen's education program until she was tapped by Secretary Duncan last spring.

UPDATE: Rick Hess has a related post you should see over at Straight Up. He's hearing that an "anonymous donor" is paying Aspen to hold prep sessions.

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