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Texas School Districts, Charters Are Finalists in Federal Competition

A few Texas school districts and charters are finalists for funds through a new version of the Obama administration's Race to the Top program. Texas had refused to participate in the program at the state level in 2010, citing concerns over federal intrusion into Texas classrooms.

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By the end of the year, a few Texas school districts may have access to millions in funding that Gov. Rick Perry had passed on two years ago because of concerns about federal intrusion into Texas classrooms.

Since Texas refused to participate in Race to the Top at the state level in 2010, the Obama administration has rolled out a new version of its signature education program to allow districts to apply individually for a separate pot of about $400 million in federal money. Administration officials announced the new round of competition that would emphasize data-driven personalized student learning plans in 2011, after three phases of the state-based contest.

That objective has produced a variety of proposals from Texas districts and charters. Galveston Independent School District is competing for $20 million that could mean more staff responsible for closely adapting its curriculum to the needs of students. Dallas-area Uplift Education, which has applied for $17 million in grants, wants increased access to college-level courses for its students and more resources to dedicate to parental engagement.

The two are among 61 national finalists announced this week by the U.S. Department of Education, which received 372 applications representing more than 1,100 districts and charter schools — 117 in Texas — for the grants. Despite the high number of applicants, the program's critics extend beyond the governor.

The Texas American Federation of Teachers, which also opposed participation in previous versions of Race to the Top because of what it viewed as the overly rigid testing and teacher evaluation measures promoted by the competition, has raised concerns about the amount of input educators had in the application process.

Linda Bridges, president of the Texas AFT, said the lack of communication between educators and administrators in developing proposals had been disappointing. “Most of these plans have been developed by a superintendent or administrators and taken out to teachers to sign onto,” with limited input from educators beforehand, she said.

In response to such criticism, the Obama administration required teachers unions to sign off on district proposals for this round of applications, which caused turmoil in states that, unlike Texas, have a strong union presence. But Bridges said that had little practical impact on collaboration in school districts.

Winners are eligible for four-year grants ranging from $5 million to $40 million depending on their student population. The federal Education Department — which said finalists were chosen to represent a range of rural and nonrural districts — expects to select 15 to 25 winners from the finalists by Dec. 31.

Finalists in Texas include three charters: Idea Public Schools, Uplift Education and Harmony Public Schools. Traditional districts that made the final cut include McAllen, Galveston, Dallas, Aubrey, Burkeville, Newton and West Hardin. (The latter three applied as a group through their regional education service center.) Several large Texas school districts did not make it to final consideration, including Houston, Spring Branch and Austin ISD. 

In previous versions of the program, 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. Implementation of common core curriculum standards — which wasn’t a prerequisite for applying, but it put the states that hadn’t adopted them at a competitive disadvantage — became the primary reason behind Perry’s decision not to apply for the money during the first competition.

Catherine Frazier, a spokeswoman for Perry, said he maintains his concern that districts receiving the grants would be "saddled with additional burdens required by the federal government on top of having to continue adhering to state education standards." By allowing schools to circumvent state governments in applying for the federal program, she said, the administration has "made it clear that it would go to any lengths to undermine our 10th Amendment rights and refused to accept the fact that Texas has no interest and no need to subscribe to its misguided, one-size-fits-all policies."

For this latest round of grants, available to schools made up of at least 40 percent low-income students, adoption of common core standards is not weighed as a factor. Applicants are instead judged on their plans to personalize student learning and implement performance evaluation systems for teachers, principals and superintendents, and their commitment to career and college ready-standards.

Administrators at both Uplift and Galveston ISD said their applications were natural extensions of the work they had been doing on their own.

“We are constantly looking for ways to meet our essential goal, which is access and success in order to close the achievement gap,” said Michael Terry, a spokesman for Uplift. “For us that means pursuing every available resource possible from the best people, from funding sources private or public. It makes sense for us because of the way the Race for the Top request was structured, it asks for what we do.”

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