Tennessee, Delaware win education grants

In a high-stakes competition, Tennessee and Delaware were awarded $600 million Monday, the only states to win grants in the first phase of “Race to the Top,” the Obama administration’s $4.35-billion education initiative, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

Duncan said both states showed that they had overwhelming support for their overhaul plans from all stakeholders -- including teachers’ unions, parents, and local and state school officials. Such support weighed heavily in the decision. Tennessee will get $500 million and Delaware will receive $100 million.

The two states both committed to turn around troubled schools and create systems for teacher evaluation. The states both plan to build on their use of data to measure student achievement. Tennessee’s application also focused on increasing high school rigor and recruiting teachers to rural areas.

Forty states and the District of Columbia had submitted applications in the lengthy and competitive grant awarding process. Tennessee has 964,259 students in 1,731 schools. Delaware has 122,574 students in 243 schools. They were chosen from 16 finalists.

“The fact that Secretary Duncan picked two instead of five or 10 states sets the bar high,” said Andy Smarick, an education expert at Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, who has been tracking the grant application and award process.

Of the 16 finalist states, Louisiana, Florida and Rhode Island had the strongest proposals but low support from unions. Kentucky and North Carolina had strong union support but weak proposals, Smarick said.

“Only two states were able to do both things, and those were the states that won,” Smarick said. “This seems to give unions a veto in round two . . . the negotiations over the next 60 days are going to be intense.”

California finished 27th among 41 applicants, a middling performance even among the group that failed to become finalists. California’s application lost points in part because only 56% of school districts agreed to participate and because teacher union involvement was lower still.

One reviewer noted that of the state’s 10 largest districts, “Six did not provide signatures of union leaders, including Los Angeles Unified, the nation’s second-largest school district. . . . The lack of union buy-in at this stage raises serious concerns.”

Other criteria for winning the Race to the Top awards were efforts to build data systems to measure student growth; identifying and turning around low-performing schools; recruiting, retaining and rewarding effective teachers; and adopting standards and assessments to prepare students for careers and higher education.

Reviewers dinged California for a data collection system that falls well short of federal expectations. California’s data system received only 17.4 of 47 points. Delaware scored 47 of 47 and Tennessee 43.6 of 47.

In this arena, California has been hampered by a data system unable to track the performance of individual students. Instead, the state system takes an annual snapshot of students grouped by subject and grade, making it impossible to determine which individual students are making progress.

Plans for an enhanced system have been delayed by repeated funding limitations.

The state also lost points for its management of charter schools, which are a central focus of the Obama administration. Charter schools are independently managed and exempt from some rules that govern traditional schools. Still, the winners were only marginally better in that arena.

All 41 applications, their scores and the comments of anonymous reviewers have been posted online to guide states seeking awards in the second round. States have until June 1 to submit new or revised applications.

Unlike in the first round, the second set of applications must not exceed certain budget limits, set by the department based on state size.

California, Texas, New York and Florida must propose award budgets ranging from $350 to $700 million, while smaller states will be working within tighter ranges. Those ranges had been offered as suggestions in the first round, and were exceeded by both of the winning states.

Duncan estimated that, at most, his agency could fund only 10 to 15 additional state applications, although he also is seeking new funding for next year.