It's time for states to apply for a part of the federal stimulus plan's $4.35 billion in Race to the Top innovation grants, and direction from individual schools can make a difference. Knowing that applications for the first round of funding are due mid-January (the money will be distributed in April), state officials will finalize plans and could seek school support in the coming weeks.
States have a better chance of winning the extra pool of federal money designated for innovative education reform with support from schools. In return, those schools could benefit from the extra cash now, and make themselves attractive when a separate $650 million reward for innovative programs becomes available later in 2010.
Approval and sign-off from all the major players -- from state superintendents down to local union leaders -- strengthen the state's case. Though the focus of Race to the Top is on high-poverty schools and those with big achievement gaps, school districts that sign on must agree to implement all aspects of the state's reforms, meet new, interim benchmarks, and keep a public record of all they do. Large, urban districts that are major players in state plans will likely grab most of the attention.
States' applications will be judged on a points system using a number of factors, including pledging to advance four core reforms: improving standards, teacher quality, and data systems and reforming underperforming schools.
Here are a few tips to help you figure out how -- and whether -- you want to get your district involved in your state's Race to the Top plan:
If state education officials aren’t knocking on your door to keep you informed, research Race to the Top guidelines, and find out what your state is up to by talking to state board of education members or the state superintendent's office. (Download a PDF of the guidelines.)
Not all will want to be a part of Race to the Top plans. High-achieving districts with reforms in place may prefer to sit it out, rather than take on extra tasks required by Race to the Top guidelines. However, if you're in a low-income district with a lot of struggling students or a high achievement gap, it's likely you'll want to be involved in this application process and that your state could use your input.
Ask About Grants
You might be interested in being a part of the state's plan but may worry that you don't have the budget or personnel for the extra work. Race to the Top money gets to schools in two ways: Half goes out based on the percentage of federal funding that schools get for low-income students (Title I), and the other half is discretionary.
That means it could go to schools that agree to participate and implement their state's plans. Share your concerns with your state education officials and ask whether they'll be giving additional grants to schools.
Hold a Community Forum
Get everyone from parents to the superintendent together to talk about what your community wants from its schools. Discuss those four core reforms and figure out ways to restructure teacher evaluations, maximize student test data, and develop models for change. You'll be better positioned to convince your state that you should be involved – but even if you don't take part in the state's plan, you've laid the groundwork for education change in your community.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has made it clear that not every state will win money; in a tie between states, the one with the strongest local support wins. The eventual goal is that the states that implement reforms using Race to the Top funding will become a model for others to follow.
Alexandra R. Moses is a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area who specializes in education.