race to the race to the top

States' education leaders could make all the difference in RttT

As finalist states head into the home stretch of competition for coveted Race to the Top funds, who’s running the show could make all the difference, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said today.

Duncan appeared today at a panel with former Education Secretary Richard Riley at a professional development conference for teachers in Manhattan. Speaking with reporters afterward, Duncan reiterated what he has often said: Race to the Top applications will be judged on “the three C’s,” a state’s “courage, commitment and capacity” to put its plans into action.

When I asked him today how the contest’s reviewers will determine capacity, Duncan said judges’ appraisals of the people behind the plans will be the most important factor — more important, he said, than a state’s policy track record so far.

That stance is likely to comfort New York officials, who have banked in part on the strong reputations of the state education system’s leadership to drive the state’s Race to the Top application, even in the face of perceived setbacks such as the legislature’s failure to lift the statewide cap on charter schools.

State Education Commissioner David Steiner arrived at his job in October bringing with him promises of change in the state education department and a reputation as an innovator in the field of teacher training. And Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch has often emphasized that her reform priorities and those of Steiner — centered around raising academic standards, improving state tests, overhauling the state’s system for tracking student data and making teacher training more practical — align with Obama administration goals.

Each finalist state will send teams of five to Washington, D.C. in two weeks to make their final pitches to the Race to the Top judges. The judges will adjust their scoring of each state’s application in response to their impressions of each team’s presentations.

The point spread among finalists’ applications is so close that states’ performances on these presentations will be the deciding factor, according to EdWeek’s Politics K-12.

The state has not yet determined who exactly will represent New York in their presentation, state education department Tom Dunn told me yesterday. Today Duncan made clear that he wants to meet the captains of each state’s proposals, not outside consultants.

“Bring us the folks who are going to be doing the work,” Duncan said.

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”