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Do Grants Offer Local Control, or Strings?

The Obama administration’s education budget includes $900 million for the Race to the Top program. And this time around, there’s a twist: Individual districts — as opposed to states — can apply for the funds.

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The $830 million tied up in a political battle in Congress isn’t the only federal money that could help ease the ache of reduced state funding to Texas schools.

The Obama administration’s 2012 Department of Education budget includes $900 million for the Race to the Top program. And this time around, there’s a twist: Individual districts — as opposed to states — can apply for the funds. For Texas districts, if it's approved, that could mean access to new federal dollars that Gov. Rick Perry passed up last year. It could also send them wading into a long-standing struggle between the state and the federal government over the implementation of so-called "common core" national curriculum standards — the reason behind Perry’s decision not to apply for the money during last year’s competition. 

While cash-strapped districts may leap at the opportunity for much-needed extra funds, some in the education community caution that receiving a Race to the Top grant could mean unwieldy testing requirements for their schools. 

"It's a lot to think about for a district because they could end up walking into a trap and looking really bad really through no fault of their own," said Ed Fuller, a special research associate in the Education Department at the University of Texas. He said districts could find themselves in the position of administering two end-of-year assessment tests — one based on national standards and one based on state standards. That exposes them to some “really thorny issues,” Fuller said.

“The last thing you want to do as a superintendent and a school board is take the money and then score really low on the national test,” he said, adding that the differences in scoring between the two tests are “going to be hard to explain away to the average parent.”

Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott, who supported the governor’s decision last time around, said that if districts want to apply, it’s “their business.” But he warned that accepting funds could mean “a one-time payment and lifetime of compliance.”

Last year, the Department of Education evaluated states’ applications based on 19 criteria, including adoption of the common core standards developed by the National Governors Association in conjunction with the Obama administration in 2009. Texas, along with Alaska, refused to participate in that process, which Perry viewed as an unwelcome intrusion into the state’s control over education. Though adherence to these common core standards isn’t a prerequisite for applying, it does put states at a competitive disadvantage if they don’t follow them. 

How the program will handle testing for Alaska and Texas is an “open question,” said Education Department Spokesman Justin Hamilton. But one thing is certain: Applying districts will still have to meet the state standards. Perry spokeswoman Catherine Frazier said that while the governor would not prohibit districts from applying, they "need to know that they are still going to be held accountable for meeting state standards and teaching the required state curriculum."

Hamilton said the department is still developing the criteria for districts in 2012. “Congress hasn't funded it yet, [and] assuming that they do, we have to come back and define what the competition will look like,” he said.

Terry Grier, superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest, said he would be “very interested” in applying for the funds — though that would involve a careful weighing of any additional requirements.

“You have to look at it all. Just because the government gives the districts the individual ability to apply doesn't mean that districts blindly apply,” he said, adding, “I think it's important that it be a local decision.”

Opposition to Race to the Top has created an unlikely alliance between the governor’s office and the Texas American Federation of Teachers, which has criticized the program for overly rigid testing and teacher accountability measures. Linda Bridges, the organization’s president, said she is waiting to see the details of the 2012 program but believes districts should make their decision to apply for the funds carefully.

"All the strings that come with the money, you have to question, is it worth it?" Bridges said. She said she would caution districts "to be very cautious and be very sure you know what you are getting into."

John Folks, the superintendent of San Antonio’s Northside district, said he is well aware of what those strings may be — and said that he wishes the Department of Education would instead distribute the Race to the Top money through Title I, which he says more equitably allots funds based on districts’ poverty levels. 

“I think we all are federal taxpayers. If it goes through the Title I formula then all districts get to participate,” he said. “Really what Secretary [Arne] Duncan is doing with the money is driving his federal agenda for education."

Still, he said his district would “absolutely” consider applying for the money, which he sees as the latest in a series of federal money grants that could pass Texas districts by. 

“Texas used the original stimulus money to supplant rather than supplement education services,” he said, noting that the state was also still waiting on the $830 million from the Education Jobs Fund. “There's several things that the federal government has made available to districts that they have not benefited from."

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