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Eastern States Dominate in Winning School Grants

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/25/education/25schools.html?pagewanted=2&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=globaleua25 August 24, 2010 Eastern States Dominate in Winning
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      http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/25/education/25schools.html?pagewanted=2&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=globaleua25

      August 24, 2010
      Eastern States Dominate in Winning School Grants
      By SAM DILLON

      When Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced on Tuesday the latest states to win the Race to the Top competition — and a share of $3.4 billion in federal financing — he said they were chosen because they outlined the boldest plans for shaking up their public school systems.

      But others noted another common denominator: geography.

      Of the dozen states that have won major grants to date in the two-part grant contest that is the Obama administration’s signature education initiative, 11 are east of the Mississippi and most hug the East Coast, including Florida and Georgia in the South and New York and Massachusetts in the North. Among the winners, Hawaii is the lone geographic exception.

      Educators in many of the states that did not win, or did not even participate in the competition — which includes every state from Tennessee west to the Pacific — said they were hamstrung from the outset.

      They said the competition’s rules tilted in favor of densely populated Eastern states, which tend to embrace more the ideas that Washington currently considers innovative, including increasing the number of charter schools and firing principals in chronically failing schools.

      But those rules have seemed a poor fit for the nation’s rural communities and sparsely populated Western regions, experts said.

      In small towns, for example, there is often just one school, so setting up a parallel charter school might not be feasible. It can also be hard to attract principals to such communities. And many of rural states do not have the resources or staff to write sophisticated grant applications.

      “This whole effort had more of an urban than a rural flavor,” said Armando Vilaseca, commissioner of education of Vermont, whose state did not participate in either round of Race to the Top.

      Congress appropriated more than $4 billion for the competition in last year’s economic stimulus program. Delaware won $100 million and Tennessee won $500 million in Round 1 in March. The 10 winners of the competition’s second round were the District of Columbia (which was treated as a state for its application), Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island.

      Mr. Duncan has distributed all but about $75 million of the $3.4 billion that remained to Tuesday’s winners, and was still deciding what to do with the remaining money, he said.

      Mr. Duncan apportioned the latest awards according to the number of students in each state. New York and Florida each won $700 million; Georgia, North Carolina and Ohio won $400 million; Massachusetts and Maryland won $250 million; and Rhode Island and the District of Columbia won $75 million.

      “The creativity and innovation in each of these winning applications is breathtaking,” Mr. Duncan said.

      In both rounds, Mr. Duncan selected the winning states after judges assigned a rank to each state’s proposal.

      The competition was designed to reward what President Obama considers exemplary educational ideas and practice, in hopes that other states will adopt similar practices.

      The president’s goals include expanding the number and quality of charter schools, updating the way school districts evaluate teachers’ effectiveness, improving student data-tracking systems to help educators know what students have learned and what must be retaught, and turning around thousands of the lowest-performing schools.

      States earned points if they raised their standards and the rigor of standardized tests. Dozens of states responded to that incentive by adopting common standards in English and math written over the last year at the request of the National Governors Association.

      Colorado and Louisiana were not among the winners, even though both states endured divisive legislative battles to change education laws in ways favored by the administration, to improve their chances of winning Race to the Top money.

      Many experts had considered those two states sure winners.

      “This list of states raises questions for me about the criteria,” said Frederick M. Hess, a director at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research group who has followed the competition closely. “I’m just puzzled. I’m sure this is giving the administration heartburn.”

      Mr. Duncan apologized to both Colorado and Louisiana in the conference call announcing the winners, saying he was “very sorry” that Colorado would go unrewarded and “I’m deeply disappointed that we weren’t able to fund Louisiana.”

      Asked whether he was concerned that almost all of the winning states were Eastern, Mr. Duncan noted that Hawaii was among the winners. “We went as far west as we could go,” Mr. Duncan said. “We want to work with Western states. Geography was irrelevant.”

      Of the 11 states that declined to participate in one round or the other, many said that they considered the rules stacked against them. All are rural or Western except Maryland, which declined to participate in the first round: Alaska, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont and Washington.

      But some rules governing other federal money are stacked in their favor. For example, most federal education money flows to states, using formulas that give rural ones more federal financing per student than their big urban counterparts.

      One aspect of the rules that especially rankled rural areas was a four-part federal menu of strategies for turning around failing schools, three of which included firing the principal.

      This month Mr. Vilaseca, the Vermont commissioner, along with colleagues from Alaska, Idaho, Kansas, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming, wrote to Mr. Duncan criticizing the idea.

      “Replacing the principal in the most rural of communities does nothing to build the leadership capacity of these small schools, where recruitment and retention is a continual problem,” the 10 rural educators wrote.

      They also objected to the focus on charter schools; competing states were rewarded with 40 points — out of 500 possible points — for encouraging more charter schools.

      “We have many small towns with one public school, elementary through high school, that has less than 200 students, so the numbers aren’t there to justify creating charter schools,” said Dan Guericke, director of the Mid-Central Educational Cooperative in South Dakota, who helped assemble that state’s Race to the Top application for the first round.

      After South Dakota placed last in Round 1, the state decided not to reapply, Mr. Guericke said.

      Grant-writing is a third area in which rural states were at a competitive disadvantage, he said. Many of the winning states spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on professional writers, drawn from consulting groups like McKinsey, to prepare applications that in many cases ran to more than 500 pages.

      South Dakota’s application was written by a full-time school teacher and a community volunteer, Mr. Guericke said.
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