Results in National Schoo-Reform Contest Spark Complaints

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While celebrations were breaking out in Massachusetts, New York, Hawaii, Florida, Rhode Island, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Georgia, North Carolina, and Ohio after the 10 were named winners of round two of the Obama administration’s national education-reform competition, Race to the Top, controversy was mounting over some of the more surprising winners and losers.

Some education reformers described themselves as stunned that two states generally considered to be at the forefront of school innovation, Louisiana and Colorado, were among the "losers," while states with less impressive reform bona fides—Hawaii, Maryland, Ohio—were among the winners. Louisiana and Colorado were finalists in rounds one and two of the competition, while neither Hawaii nor Maryland made the finals in the first round. The winners will share $3.4 billion in prize money, to be divided based on population.

(New Orleans and Denver were among the highest rated by a new study on the most reform-minded cities, released earlier today. New York and Washington, D.C., were also at the top of that list.)

“I don’t want to trash Ohio, but it’s hard to see Ohio as a winner and Louisiana and Colorado as losers,” said Terry Ryan, vice president for Ohio programs and policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank. “For those of us who live and breathe education reform and are on the ground in these states, it’s clear that Louisiana is night and day ahead of us on some of these issues. I thought this competition was supposed to reward states that are bold and innovative. Ohio has definitely made improvements, but they are slow and steady."

Ryan had blogged earlier this year about reformers' concerns that "political horse-trading" was creeping into the evaluation process, particularly in Ohio, where incumbent Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland is in a tight fight with Republican challenger John Kasich. Strickland was one of five governors who traveled to Washington to help make their states' cases to the peer reviewers overseeing the judging.

Other educators, however, including Ryan's colleague Mike Petrilli, downplayed the politics idea. Petrilli noted that while " the White House must surely be happy with the outcome vis-a-vis Ohio and Maryland, where Democratic governors face tough reelection campaigns, it couldn’t have been too pleased about Senator Michael Bennet’s Colorado." 

In a press conference early this afternoon, Education Secretary Arne Duncan insisted politics played no role in the rankings and said he relied strictly on the ratings given by peer reviewers, whose comments and scores will be posted online tomorrow. Videos of each state's presentation will be accessible to the public by Sept. 10. (Each state's application is available here.)

Another reformer, Andrew Rotherham, cofounder of Bellwether Education Partners and a former member of the Virginia Board of Education, said he thinks the surprising results may indicate more of a scoring problem than anything else. "Same thing happened in round one," he said. "I think you just saw some uneven scoring among the reviewers, and the administration felt they couldn’t overrule because then they’d take a hit for playing politics with the competition. In other words, the problem wasn’t a thumb on the scale, it’s a thumb off the scale."   

Duncan defended the process, saying that many states made big improvements to their initial applications between round one, which ended in late March, and round two, with many states rethinking the status quo and passing new legislation to hasten the pace of their reform efforts. Joe Williams, of Democrats for Education Reform, said places like New York were "pushed out of complacency" by Race to the Top, particularly after they didn't end up at the top by the end of round one—and made changes they would not have considered just a few years ago.

The Obama administration launched the competition last year as a way to motivate states to voluntarily make the kind of education reforms it advocates, including expanding the number and improving the quality of charter schools, overhauling teaching evaluations to include student performance, improving student-data collection, and transforming the lowest performing schools. Longtime education watchers have been astounded over the last year by how quickly and enthusiastically most states have responded to the challenge. 

While the amount of money each winning state will receive amounts to a relatively small proportion of its budget, many political leaders indicated that any source of new funding was worth pursuing in a recessionary environment that has forced substantial cutbacks in many school districts. Massachusetts, the state that earned the top score, will receive $250 million, while New York gets $700 million and Hawaii $75 million. Duncan said the number of winners would have been bigger if the competition's fund had been larger, and added that he would attempt to find ways to provide additional federal funding to states that fell just short of the winners' circle.

Delaware and Tennessee, two states with long histories of aggressive reform, were the winners of the first round of the competition, beating out 38 others states and the District of Columbia. Delaware, which recently passed a law allowing districts to fire tenured teachers rated “ineffective” for three years, received $100 million. Tennessee, which is allowing student performance to be used to help evaluate teacher effectiveness, was awarded $500 million. Georgia and Florida came in third and fourth in the first round of the competition, but received no financial reward.

Duncan  says he hopes to secure another $1.35 billion to extend the competition into a third round during fiscal year 2011, and said Tuesday that he remains optimistic that he can also launch fourth and fifth rounds.

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