NW States Decide Whether To Compete In Race To The Top

OLYMPIA, Wash. – Idaho and Oregon are out. Washington is likely in. We're talking about the competition for the next round of federal Race to the Top education grants. Monday is the deadline for school districts in Washington to say whether they're on board.

Race to the Top is a $4 billion carrot the Obama administration is dangling in front of states. The goal is to encourage dramatic and sometimes controversial education reforms like tying student performance to teacher pay. At a news conference in early April, Washington Governor Chris Gregoire implored all 295 Washington school districts to support the state's application for $250 million in federal money.

Chris Gregoire: “We have a very simple message today for the school districts and our partners across the state and that is: sign up. Sign up for Race to the Top. Washington students need you.”

Specifically, Gregoire was asking for a signature from every school board president and superintendent in the state, plus a union and principal representative from each district. As late as last week Gregoire admitted the response was underwhelming.

Chris Gregoire: “Well, I'm obviously concerned.”

But then late last week a flurry of districts got their signatures in. That boosted the participation rate to two-thirds of districts. Even so some, like South Whidbey Schools, have flat out decided not to sign on. The superintendent wrote the Governor a letter. He said, for his district, the federal red tape is more trouble than it's worth in grant money. Gregoire was clearly not pleased.

Chris Gregoire: “When a school district decides they're not going to apply, they're not making a decision just for them, they're making a decision for the state. Every school district that stays out will impact whether we're going to be successful in the grant.”

In the first round of Race to the Top earlier this year, only two states – Delaware and Tennessee – won grants. Idaho and Oregon both applied but based on their low scores have decided not to apply again in this next round. Last time Oregon scored near the bottom.

Sue Levin: “We got an F overall.”

Sue Levin is with the parents group Stand for Children. She thinks Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski made the right decision when he took a pass on the second round. But she says Oregon's poor showing should serve as a giant wake-up call.

Sue Levin: “This is not just about Race to the Top. Oregon has not passed a comprehensive piece of important education legislation in many years. The focus of the debate on education in Oregon has been funding, funding and funding.”

Back in Washington, state schools chief Randy Dorn and the head of the state teachers' union have been helping the governor round-up signatures. In tiny Colfax, Washington near the Idaho border, Superintendent Michael Morgan shared the concern many small districts have. That the cost of reporting back to Washington, DC would be more than the money his district would receive.

Michael Morgan: “We would love to have an extra $13,000 or $14,000 to be able do stuff directly for students or to improve programs. We're just concerned that the reporting requirements, that are very vague still at this point could be a large amount of compliance issues.”

But he decided to sign on anyway after he was assured his district could back out down the road. What would Morgan do with the Race to the Top money? Help get preschoolers ready for kindergarten. Gregoire had said she needed one hundred percent participation for the state to have a competitive application. But now she's leaving herself an out. Gregoire says if the districts that do sign-on represent a majority of the state's one million students, then she'll go forward with the application. That now appears likely.

Copyright 2010 Northwest News Network

On the web: http://www.waracetothetop.org/