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Race to Top, Round 2: The Contenders

Michele's got the full list of states posted over at Politics K-12, so we can officially kick off our prognosticating on who the likely victors will be in Round 2 of the Race to the Top sweepstakes.

It's certainly not going out on a limb to predict that strong finishers in Round One are likely to be competitive again: Illinois, Florida, Louisiana, and Rhode Island, for example.

But let's consider what may happen with a couple of other, lower-profile applicants.

First, the big boy: California. The state crashed and burned in its first crack at Race to the Top, finishing a lackluster 27th out of 41 applicants. That performance nearly kept the state from bothering with a second-round application, but some pressure from Ed. Sec. Arne Duncan helped convince Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and other leaders to keep the state in the running.

This time around, the state lined up a smaller number of districts—including mammoth Los Angeles Unified and universally-respected Long Beach—to push for bolder plans in those locales. Bonnie Reiss, Gov. Schwarzenegger's appointed secretary of education, helped enlist the Parthenon Group, the consultant behind Georgia's third-place finish in Round One, and one of three application gurus endorsed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She also got several foundations, including Gates, to pay the Parthenon tab.

Reiss told me that Parthenon helped the state's Race to the Top team comb through every detail of the two winning states and strong finalists to pick out those features that garnered big points in Round One. What the group came up with in that all-important category of teacher and leader effectiveness is a plan to give those districts that have endorsed the state's Race to the Top application 13 months to create new teacher and principal evaluations that will, at a minimum, link 30 percent of job performance to growth in student achievement. That certainly goes beyond what the state had laid out for teacher evaluations in its first crack at Race to the Top money.

But will it be enough? Unlike top contenders Colorado and Louisiana, California did not pass statewide legislation that would mandate a complete redesign of teacher evaluation systems, a step that Reiss acknowledged would have "been impossible to achieve" by today's deadline. Also, she said, the application had to acknowledge that the state must "respect current laws for collective bargaining." A lot will be riding on whether the Race to the Top judges believe that California's superintendents can convince their local union leaders to change their collective bargaining agreements so that teacher evaluations can be overhauled in the way the state's Race to the Top team is aspiring to.

The state also borrowed a strategy from Round One winner Tennessee by getting letters of support from the three leading gubernatorial candidates: Democrat Jerry Brown, and Republicans Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner. Notably, the team didn't reach out to the three major candidates for state schools chief.

My hunch? They probably would not have gotten two of the three candidates to endorse it. Tom Torlakson, an assemblyman, is backed by the California Teachers Association, which did not endorse the state's first or second round bid. Larry Aceves, a retired superintendent, told me last month that competing for Race to the Top would be a "waste of time" for California, especially because the state's student information tracking system is not fully operational. Only Gloria Romero, a state senator, has been a robust backer of Race to the Top and appeared alongside the governor yesterday when he signed the application.

That brings me to Maryland, the one holdout state in Round One that could mount a strong bid for Round Two dollars. You may remember that Maryland's explanation for staying out of the first round was to give its lawmakers time to enact changes, that, of course, include redesigning teacher evaluations.

William Reinhard, the spokesman for Maryland's department of education, said a central piece of the state's application is a new law that requires the redesign of teacher and principal evaluations. That law left it to the state board of education to designate how much those evaluations must be based on growth in student achievement, and the board agreed to make it 50 percent. The state's Education Reform Act of 2010 also includes a change to Maryland's tenure system; it will now take three years for teachers to acquire tenure, rather than two.

Maryland's Race to the Top team got 22 out of 24 school districts to sign on. But one of those holdouts is the state's largest district, Montgomery County (where I live). This, of course, is quite notable because of the district's profile as one of the highest-performing districts in the nation and, now, for its status as one of five finalists for the Broad Prize in Urban Education. Superintendent Jerry D. Weast seems to think that the state's plan would derail the good thing going in his district, especially its use of a "peer assistance and review" system of teacher evaluation. Read this letter he wrote to the Baltimore Sun last month that lays out his view.

UPDATE: Folks, I need to clarify something about California's round-two application. In our chat yesterday, Ed. Sec. Bonnie Reiss told me that the Gates Foundation was one of several that had helped the state foot the bill for the consulting services of the Parthenon Group. Today, a member of the secretary's staff told me that while Gates provided support in the form of one of its senior program officers, it did not supply any money. The foundations that did help California pay for preparing its second round application were the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Stuart Foundation.

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