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PA among 19 Race to the Top finalists




Pennsylvania is among 18 states and the District of Columbia named as finalists for a share of a pot of $3.4 billion in money from Race to the Top, the US Department of Education's competition among states to enact favored reforms including charter schools and teacher pay-for-performance. There were 36 applicants in the second round. New Jersey is another finalist.

Duncan announced the finalists during a speech at the National Press Club that he called The Quiet Revolution. Duncan said that RttT's requirements have unleashed a torrent of reform. Which he thinks is good, but which some others, including a coalition of civil rights groups, contend is taking education reform in the wrong direction.

He said that 10 to 15 states would likely be awarded money, depending on their size. Pennsylvania, one of the big states, has requested close to its upper limit of $400 million.

A highlight of Duncan's speech:

Included in the Recovery Act was -- by the standards of Washington -- a relatively small provision authorizing the Department of Education to design and administer competitive programs aimed at improving education in four core areas of reform: standards, teachers, data and school turnarounds.

With a budget of just $5 billion dollars -- less than one percent of total education spending in America -- this minor provision in the Recovery Act has unleashed an avalanche of pent-up education reform activity at the state and local level.

Pennsylvania Acting Secretary of Education Thomas Gluck said that he was "optimistic" that the state would win some of the funds this time. In the first round, there were two winners, Delaware and Tennessee. With a score of 420, Pennsylvania came in seventh.

If Pennsylvania wins the full amount, Philadelphia is in line for close to $100 million.

Many of the states passed laws, raised or eliminated charter caps, or made other high-profile changes between the last round and this in order to increase their chances. Other than agreeing to adopt the Common Core standards, Pennsylvania didn't do that.

Instead, Gluck said, it "did a much better job of making the case" that it already has the "field structure" in place to improve instructional practices school-by-school and to aid districts in using data well.

The state discovered it had lost points for academic improvement, when in fact it is the only state to see across-the-board increases in reading and math test scores in all grades over the past eight years.

Pennsylvania insisted that for a school district to participate, it needed buy-in from the superintendent, school board president, and local teachers' union. Last round 122 districts (including Philadelphia) and 69 charter schools signed on.

No districts were added this time, but the state was careful to point out that the ones on board represent 40 percent of the overall student population, as well as 60 percent of the low-income students and 70 percent of the minority students. Last time, Gluck said, the peer reviewers who rated the applications didn't fully understand that Pennsylvania required such a depth of support in each district -- meaning it will be easier to actually to implement the reforms.

"We set a high bar," he said.

Duncan, in a telephone conference with reporters, stressed that a state's ability to actually proceed with its reforms will be a major factor in the final judging.

"Our job is to determine which states have the best chance of implementing their plans," Duncan said. The reviewers will be "looking closely to the strength in the management team."

Of course, Pennsylvania's leadership will be different next year as Gov. Rendell leaves office. Gluck said that both gubernatorial candidates, Republican Tom Corbett and Democrat Dan Onorato, have signed letters of support in the application, which stresses the kinds of reforms, like charter school growth and better teacher and principal evaluations, that can appeal across party lines.

And if Pennsylvania doesn't win? Gluck said that it will continue to pursue the same strategies.

"It's the right agenda," he said. "The Race to the Top money will allow us to pursue it faster and deeper, but things like new teacher and principal evaluation systems...we're going to go there...we've already started that process."

A statement issued by Gov. Rendell said Pennsylvania's RttT funds would "accelerate ongoing efforts to:

  • Increase student achievement and develop data systems capable of supporting reform;
  • Turn around the lowest performing schools;
  • Create a world-class system for professional development;
  • Develop a robust evaluation system for teachers and leaders; and
  • Evaluate programs to identify and spread best practices."

A five-member team now must sell the state's commitment, focus, and effort to a review panel. Last time, Philadelphia Superintendent Arlene Ackerman was part of the team, and she is likely to be a member again, according to both Gluck and District spokesman Fernando Gallard. Ackerman is already deep into school turnaround through her Renaissance Schools initiative.

As my Education Writers Association friends point out, this is the first in a series of federal education funding-related news items due in the next few weeks.

Duncan pointed out in his speech that 80 percent of federal aid, including Title One funds targetted to disadvantaged students, is still driven by a set formula -- meaning it is not subject to RttT-type competition. Other competitive grant programs include the Teacher Incentive Fund, with about $600 million, and $650 million in Investing in Innovation (I3).

Follow all this news at EWA's nifty site

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Dale Mezzacappa

Dale is a contributing editor at the Notebook. She has reported on education since 1986, most of that time with The Philadelphia Inquirer.