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Missouri announces steps toward seeking Race to Top federal education funds

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 26, 2009 - Missouri Commissioner of Education Chris L. Nicastro announced today that Missouri would seek public input next month for the state's proposal for Race to the Top funds, a $4 billion federal initiative intended to stimulate education reform across the country.

She said she would convene more than 200 Missouri educators, lawmakers, business leaders and others in Jefferson City on Nov. 23 to weigh in on the state's application. The day-long forum will be held at the Capitol Plaza Hotel.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has been working in recent weeks to marshal the resources to support the grant proposal, with the goal of submitting an application early next year, she said.

Although Race to the Top applications were originally expected to be available early this fall, the U.S. Department of Education has not released the final application form yet. The due dates for Round 1 and Round 2 of the application process have not yet been determined.

"We have been working hard to assemble the resources that will enable us to develop an innovative and competitive proposal," Nicastro said. "I think the competition for these funds will be intense, and I want to do everything we can to make sure Missouri is in the running."

Only states may submit applications for the competitive grants. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will coordinate the grant-writing process, in consultation with the governor's office. The final Race to the Top application must be submitted by Gov. Jay Nixon, the State Board of Education and Commissioner Nicastro.

"We are going to have an inclusive process that gives many stakeholders the opportunity to contribute. Our objective is to create an ambitious proposal to support educational reform over the next decade and beyond," Nicastro said.

Missouri apparently will sit out the first lap of the Race to the Top program, a $4.3 billion school reform initiative enacted as part of the federal economic stimulus legislation.

When Education Secretary Arne Duncan visited St. Louis last summer, he said the program offered a "once in a lifetime opportunity" to create far-reaching improvement in the nation's schools. Funding would favor states committed to innovation, such as:

  • making decisions based on data,
  • weeding out incompetent teachers and administrators,
  • linking teacher pay to student performance, and
  • turning around low-performing schools.

During his visit, Duncan urged Missouri to apply for a Race to the Top grant.
Half or more of the $4.3 billion could be awarded in the first round; federal officials have not said how much would be distributed in each of the two funding cycles, one in late fall, the other in the spring.

Missouri Education Commissioner Chris L. Nicastro has also praised the program, as an "outstanding opportunity" for Missouri -- but last week said that time constraints and the hefty resources needed to write a strong application meant that Missouri wouldn't be ready to apply until the second round of funding.

Drafting the grant itself poses some challenges, she added. The application would take more than 680 hours to complete. "Missouri will work with a writing group with a proven track record of successful grant-writing and reform leadership," she said.

Last month, Nicastro told the Missouri Joint Committee on Education that a successful application would "require the best thinking of a diverse, representative group" from across the state, adding "I anticipate Missouri competing in the second round of grants due next spring."

The Department of Elementary and Secondard Education, said Nicastro, was working to convene a group to develop a proposal to recommend to Gov. Jay Nixon. DESE said Friday it would convene a town hall on Race to the Top for Nov. 23 or 24; the location hasn't been announced.

Reaction is Mixed

Missouri's decision to sit out the first round has drawn mixed reaction. State Sen. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville and a member of the Joint Education Committee, argues that it's "irresponsible" not to apply this year.

Others who have taken issue with Missouri's decision include Earl Simms, state director of the Children's Education Council of Missouri, a pro-charter school organization.

Everybody complains about the state lacking money for schools, Rupp said, so this program might have been an opportunity to draw down more money. Some states, including California, have called special legislative sessions to bring their school laws in line with what's required under Race to the Top. Rupp speculated that Missouri might have received up to $100 million, based on its percentage of the nation's population.

Last summer, though, Duncan made it clear that the money would not be evenly distributed among states. The process will be extremely competitive, he stresssed, and some states may get nothing.

Still, some state lawmakers back the decision to wait. Sen. Rita Days, D-St. Louis County, disagreed with Rupp, saying she had faith in Nicastro's judgment. She believed the commissioner and other officials would have submitted an application this year had they thought their efforts would be successful.

Nor do all charter-school backers think that Missouri should apply this round -- or even the next. Among them is Sarah Brodsky, a former policy analyst for the Show-Me Institute, who calls the focus on Race to the Top funding a "distraction from reforms" already taking place in Missouri. These, she said, included the state's "virtual instruction program," new charter schools, an online school and the introduction of choice schools.

"Whatever Missouri may gain financially from Race to the Top will be offset by the downside: It encourages states to focus on policies the federal government wants rather than on policies parents are calling for," she says.

Meanwhile, Dan Weisberg, vice president of policy for the New Teacher Project, says Missouri may be making a wise decision in delaying its application. His group, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., researches education and seeks to boost the number of effective teachers in poor and minority school districts.

It's quite possible that only a handful of states will win grants, Weisberg said, so given the competition, it might make sense for Missouri to take the time to submit the strongest application possible. Weisberg expects most states to submit proposals during the first round, but Missouri might have an advantage in reviewing and learning from the winning grants.

Reforms in Missouri

Missouri officials have yet to say what administrative or legislative changes might be needed for the state develop a strong application. Otto Fajen, legislative director of the Missouri National Education Association, says the federal Department of Education wants to see "movement toward 'performance pay' for staff and tying teacher evaluations in some way to student test scores."

The federal program also calls for states to eliminate rules blocking the creation of new charter schools. As matters now stand, Missouri has restricted charter schools to the St. Louis and Kansas City school districts. Still, Missouri may not have to remove this barrier because a state doesn't have to meet every single requirement in the four broad areas to quality for funds.

Even before applications are submitted, Duncan has tried to spur the kind of reforms his agency favors. In June, he pointed to California, New York and Wisconsin as states with laws that preclude them from using data to find relationships between student achievement and teacher performance. He said these laws "prohibit us from connecting children to adults who teach them." He also mentioned that California lacked a way to identify effective teachers and weed out those "teachers that should probably find another profession."

"No one in California can tell you which teacher is in which category," said Duncan. "Something is wrong with that picture."

Missouri Called Competitive

In August, the New Teacher Project evaluated each state's competitiveness for Race to the Top grants. The group ranked Missouri as competitive for partly meeting some of the criteria, including standards and assessment, data driven decision-making and turning around some low-performing schools. (See map below)

Three of the eight states adjacent to Missouri -- Arkansas, Oklahoma and Tennessee -- also were listed as competitive. Among the rest, Kansas, Illinois and Iowa were listed as "somewhat competitive" for funding, while Kentucky and Nebraska were listed as "not meeting one or more selection criteria." The researchers note that some states' ranking may have improved since its report was issued. Nebraska, for example, is among the states that seek funding this year.

"We intend to apply for the first round of funding, but we're still awaiting final requirements from the federal government," says Brian Halstead, assistant commissioner of education.

Some states have wondered why the federal government is taking so long to announce these final requirements. The delay has touched off rumors that the government has been slow to act because of pressure from interest groups seeking to slow reform.

But President Barack Obama promised during the summer that the Race to the Top program "will not be based on politics, ideology, or the preferences of a particular interest group. Instead, it will be based on a simple principle --- whether a state is ready to do what works."

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.