USA Today: Delaware, Tennessee 'win' educational grants

Press Releases

March 29, 2010

(From USA Today, March 29, 2010)


In a move that could push educators nationwide to try new — and sometimes untested — school reforms, Delaware and Tennessee won a cash windfall Monday from the Obama administration by dumping limits on charter schools, tying teacher evaluations to student test scores and taking drastic measures to turn around persistently struggling schools.
Saying the two had agreed to reforms that were “touching every single child” in their schools, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncanannounced that the pair would share about $600 million this spring. They beat out 38 other states and the District of Columbia in the long-anticipated first round of his Race to the Top competitive grant.

Part of the larger federal stimulus plan, most of its $4.35 billion eventually could reach as many as 17 states and affect millions of children. But in the first round, tiny Delaware will get $100 million; Tennessee will get $500 million. Together the two states enroll slightly more students than New York City.

Speaking to reporters Monday, Duncan said Round II would feature as many as 15 states, which will be announced in September. “We want to fund as many strong proposals as possible,” he said.

Though the money will surely help the cash-strapped schools, perhaps the bigger influence will be on states pushing to compete for Round II this fall. President Obama wants Congress to make the grant a permanent part of the budget, and already many observers say the dash for cash has pushed states to change long-standing laws that crimped innovation.

“There’s been more action, real action, in the last year than in any time I can remember,” says Charlie Barone of Democrats for Education Reform. The two winning states have done “all the things that people say you should do that aren’t sexy.” Delaware, for example, has aligned academic standards with curriculum, teacher training and testing. Tennessee lawmakers met in special session last summer to remove a cap on the number of privately run, publicly funded charter schools it allows each year.

But the reforms aren’t slam-dunks, says Tom Loveless, a Brookings Institution researcher who found earlier this month that school turnarounds “can be done, but the odds are daunting.” He examined 1,156 California schools over a 20-year period and calculated that the odds of a poorly performing school rising to the top in 20 years were about one in 70. The findings, he says, suggest that “people who say we know how to make failing schools into successful ones but merely lack the will to do so are selling snake oil.”