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Prize in Race to the Top is probably out of reach, commissioner says

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 15, 2010 - Like most of the participants in last weekend's marathon, Missouri has little chance of finishing among the winners in the nationwide Race to the Top education competition, but that's not a reason it shouldn't keep running.

That assessment comes from Chris Nicastro, the state's commissioner of elementary and secondary education. Missouri failed to crack the list of finalists in the first round of the competition for $4 billion in federal stimulus funds for education, and reviews of the state's application weren't all that heartening.

Now, as the state prepares its application for the second round, due on June 1, Nicastro admits that the two areas in which Missouri was found below par -- charter schools, and teachers and leaders -- are unlikely to get much better in time for the state to claim a share of the remaining $3.4 billion.

"It'll be a challenge," Nicastro said in an interview Wednesday night after appearing at a forum at Webster University, part of a series moderated by former Gov. Bob Holden.

The Race to the Top competition, announced earlier this year by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, is focused on four main areas: standards and assessments; data systems; teachers and leaders; and turning around poorly performing schools. Missouri's application sought $743 million.

But reviewers who judged the application of Missouri and the other 40 jurisdictions that entered the competition were not always kind in their evaluations, particularly in the areas of teachers and leaders and the availability of charter schools, which give families an alternative to traditional public schools.

Nicastro told the forum that in some respects, Missouri is a decade or more behind other states. She noted that in terms of charters, current law allows them only in St. Louis and Kansas City -- a geographic restriction that charter backers have tried to change but with little success in Jefferson City.

With this year's legislative session ending May 14, and with so much focus on the state budget, there's little chance or opportunity to change the law on charters or step up efforts to improve the quality of the state's teachers and leaders, Nicastro said.

So while the state won higher marks for its standards and the use of data to help improve schools, she said, its score is not likely to markedly improve for the second round in the Race to the top. Finalists in round two will be announced in August, with winners named in September.

In the interview after Wednesday night's forum, Nicastro said the state will still work on completing and submitting its second-round application, noting that most of the effort by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was taken up by the first-round document.

She also feels that the state's score -- which averaged 301.4 out of a possible 500 from its five reviewers -- is likely to rise, even though it may not be high enough to win a share of the prize.

"We think we can get our points up over 400 by doing a better job of articulating our standards and some of the strengths of our plans," Nicastro said. "We're not really changing our ideas. We are simply rewriting to improving the clarity of our story."

She said by taking a critical look at what the reviewers of the state's application had to say, Missouri education officials can sharpen their focus on what needs to be done to improve performance by students. But in the end, she added, real reform can't be imposed from the top down, by DESE, but has to come from a grassroots effort if it will succeed in the end.

"Even if it could happen," Nicastro said, "I'm not sure it should. We haven't had a statewide serious discussion on these issues. You can't just snap your fingers and make reform happen. You need to build support and consensus."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.