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Administration launches school reform contest

Billions are up for grabs in competition

President Obama, with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Department of Education headquarters in Washington yesterday, announced a national education competition with more than $4 billion in federal dollars as the prize. President Obama, with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Department of Education headquarters in Washington yesterday, announced a national education competition with more than $4 billion in federal dollars as the prize. (Jim Young/Reuters)
By Joseph Williams
Globe Staff / July 25, 2009

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WASHINGTON - President Obama, using stimulus funds in a bid to jump-start education reform, announced a national competition for the best ideas to boost student performance of charter schools and bring the best educators to the classroom, with more than $4 billion in federal dollars as the prize.

The “Race to the Top’’ initiative is designed to identify new, effective ways to teach, reward states for innovation, and give state authorities a chance to patch rapidly widening holes in education budgets.

It also spurs states to voluntarily make sweeping reforms the administration wants - including linking teacher pay to how well students do on tests, and expanding the role of charter schools in public education.

“This competition will not be based on politics, ideology, or the preferences of a particular interest group,’’ Obama said, flanked by Education Secretary Arne Duncan at an afternoon press conference in the Department of Education headquarters. “Instead, it will be based on a simple principle - whether a state is ready to do what works.’’

“Not every state will win and not every school district will be happy with the results,’’ the president said. “But America’s children, America’s economy, America itself will be better for it.’’

Carol Johnson, Boston Public Schools superintendent, said the city and Massachusetts are well positioned to claim their share of the money. Both the state and the city have a long history of innovation in the classroom, she said, including mentoring programs for struggling students and aggressively working to turn around underperforming schools.

“We have a tradition of high standards,’’ and have worked hard to close the achievement gap between successful students and their lower-performing peers. “We all want to look at some [creative] teaching and leadership work to change our current practices but also boost the efforts that we made’’ to give all students a quality education.

The office of Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Democrat and chair of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee, issued a statement yesterday hailing the program as “a dramatic new era in the federal, state, and local partnership to improve America’s schools.’’

“This historic $4 billion investment in rewarding and supporting states whose schools are most effective in improving the quality of education holds great promise in achieving the reform we urgently need,’’ Kennedy said in the statement. “I’m confident that Massachusetts and many other states will use this opportunity to make our schools the best in the world.’’

Russ Whitehurst, a senior education analyst at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said the president’s announcement “certainly got the attention of states - they are desperate for the money’’ during the severe economic downturn. “They don’t want to leave it on the table.’’

Duncan said yesterday that perhaps 10 to 20 states will have successful ideas that can be replicated, and divvy up the $4.3 billion prize - a significant windfall as financially strapped states continue to trim education budgets.

“The administration is using a huge amount of money to advance the president’s own policy,’’ Whitehurst said. “It’s unprecedented that [Duncan] gets to dole it out’’ with relatively little oversight from Congress.

Under the guidelines Duncan announced yesterday, to be eligible for the money a state must meet a series of standards - including some conditions that could anger teachers’ unions, which helped sweep Obama into office last fall.

States that bar links between student performance and teacher evaluations, such as California, New York, and Wisconsin, are ineligible, and the program won’t allow states that put caps on the number of charter schools - including Massachusetts.

Johnson said in an interview yesterday that Mayor Thomas M. Menino has filed a request with the state Legislature for more flexibility in local education standards, including the number of charter schools. “We’re asking the state to give us flexibility so that we could target some different ways of doing business in those schools that are lowest-performing. Creating opportunities for flexibility and innovation can be critical’’ to closing a persistent gap in the performance of black and Latino students with their white and Asian counterparts.

But Whitehurst said the biggest drawback could be a gap between what innovations states submit - and what they are actually able to accomplish in the classroom.

“It’s one shot. If you get the money, there’s not that much you have to worry about,’’ he said. “There’s no accountability here. There will be a lot of slippage’’ between what Obama and Duncan want to accomplish, what the states promise to do, and what the actual results will be once the innovations take hold.

“If it were easy,’’ Whitehurst said, “it would have been done already.’’