$250 Million Worth of Fuss

The U.S. Department of Education released the final rules Thursday for the high-stakes competition called the Race to the Top. That’s the $4.35 billion in grants to be given out in the next year to spur states to take major steps aimed at improving a host of aspects of schooling, including the quality of teachers and the quality of education options open to children, especially those in historically low performing communities.

How much is at stake? Included in the material was a list of how much each state could potentially receive. For Wisconsin, the figure was $150 million to $250 million.

It is unlikely Wisconsin actually will get that much. It appears there are some points where Wisconsin will score well (atmosphere for creating charter schools), and other points where Wisconsin will not do well (track record on closing achievement gaps, such as the one between white and black students).

Each state’s application will be judged by committees still being formed. The rubric assigns points to each of more than a dozen areas of interest, with a total of 430 possible points. Among the areas carrying high point potential: “Improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance,” 58 points; “turning around the lowest-achieving schools,” 40 points; and “ensuring successful conditions for high-performing charter schools and other innovative schools,” 40 points.

Make no mistake — this will be a competition. President Barack Obama made that point in his speech last week in Madison and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan underscored it in interviews accompanying the release of the final rules. Obama said this was much different than the usual federal program that makes sure everyone gets something. Duncan said there will be more losers than winners in the process. Furthermore, the final say on the grants lies with Duncan. Congress does not have to approve, which will reduce the interest in appeasing anybody (or everybody).

States have until mid-January to submit applications for the first of two rounds of awarding grants. That’s a big reason why Gov. Jim Doyle has been pushing for fast action by the Legislature on a range of proposals related to education. Some were approved last week, but the fate of others — the more controversial ones — remains to be seen. Still no word on whether there will be a special session of the Legislature in the next several weeks to consider ideas such as giving Milwaukee’s mayor the dominant power in governing Milwaukee Public Schools.

Is it required that Wisconsin approve mayoral control in Milwaukee to win Race to the Top money? There is nothing in the final rules that says you have to have mayoral control. But Duncan has a lot of latitude to make decisions on his judgment, and he is firmly partial to mayoral control. Doyle and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett say that, as a practical matter, Duncan and the people who will score the grant applications will want to see approval of overhaul of MPS governance as a sign that Wisconsin is serious about change.

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