Districts May Bypass State in Race to the Top

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A week after Gov. Rick Perry pulled the state out of the federal “Race to the Top” education grant competition, President Barack Obama signaled that he wants to give school districts a way to bypass the state and apply directly to Washington.

In a speech at Graham Road Elementary School in Falls Church, Va., the president announced he would ask Congress for an additional $1.35 billion for the program, along with more flexibility in doling it out to individual districts. (The program is currently financed with $4.35 billion; Texas could have gotten between $350 and $700 million.)

Obama used the occasion to take a swipe at Texas, or at least its governor.

“And this support will not only reaffirm our commitment to states engaged in serious reform, it will also expand the Race to the Top competition to include local school districts that are also committed to change,” Obama said, according to a White House transcript. “So innovative districts like the one in Texas whose reform efforts are being stymied by state decision-makers will soon have the chance to earn funding to help them pursue those reforms.”

The president didn’t specify which district; Texas Education Agency spokeswoman Debbie Ratcliffe guessed it was Houston, where officials criticized Perry’s rejecting of the money.

The Houston Chronicle agreed with Houston officials in an editorial – and seemed to advocate allowing Houston ISD to apply without going through the state.

It's especially strange because Race to the Top is intended to encourage states to reform their schools in ways that Texas pioneered. Standards-based testing? We've done it for years. Charter schools? We launched them before they were cool. Holding teachers and principals accountable for students' performance on those tests? Merit bonuses are nothing new for the Houston Independent School District. (If HISD could apply for Race to the Top money by itself, independent of Texas, its competitors would tremble.)

So what's Texas' problem? When Gov. Rick Perry nixed the state's application earlier this week, he explained that the money would come with too many federal strings attached. Mostly he complained that Texas would have to adopt a national curriculum. And his appointee, Education Commissioner Robert Scott, has gone so far as to say that the U.S. Department of Education's push for national benchmarks is “a step toward a federal takeover of the nation's public schools.” They seem to envision jack-booted thugs storming in, forcing our fourth-graders to … what? pledge allegiance to the American flag before they offer their respects to the Lone Star?

Scott has in fact taken shots at the program, even well before the state dropped out. He’s argued that the potential take for Texas just wasn't that much money in a state with a budget topping $40 billion. Moreover, it would cost Texas more to adopt new national standards — one factor that earned states points in the “race” — than it would ever receive in grants.

If the feds extend the competition to districts, that would seem to make everybody happy. But a mention in a presidential speech is hardly concrete action. Obama still needs approval from Congress, for both the money and the flexibility to extend the grants to individual districts, said U.S. Department of Education spokesman Justin Hamilton.

“But the general sense is that president would like to see it opened to school districts, regardless of where their states’ stand,” he said. 

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