Alaska Not Racing To The Top

By Libby Casey

The state has again decided not to compete for education dollars available under a competitive federal program.  The Race to the Top competition was designed to get states to develop innovative education plans.  It’s in its second round, and Alaska was one of 10 states that did not apply in Round 1. 

The money for the Race to the Top program comes from the stimulus plan.  In Round 2, nearly$3.5-Billion will go to states that meet the Obama Administration’s criteria.  Schools need to go through an extensive application process that awards points for steps taken toward progress and reform — and future goals.  They’ll get points for things like turning around the lowest achieving schools.

But when the June 1st deadline comes, Alaska won’t be among the competitors.

Alaska Department of Education spokesman Eric Fry says the state weighed its chances.

We felt we were extremely unlikely to win the grant.  Once we saw the 500 point scoring rubric the federal government was going to use, we analyzed it and thought to ourselves it wasn’t worth public funds to apply for something we were unlikely to win.

Fry says preparing the application would’ve cost several hundred-thousand dollars.  He says the state also doesn’t like the “solutions” recommended by the feds for failing schools.  They include firing principals and staff, closing schools, and bringing in an outside operator to help.  Fry says those options aren’t realistic in rural Alaska.

They’re right to ask to see where’s the bang for the buck and ask for accountability from states if they’re giving us money, but we don’t like the idea of them closing doors and saying we’ll only give you money if you do exactly what we think is the right thing to do.

But the Obama Administration says it realizes rural Alaska needs flexibility, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan has pledged his commitment to help allow for that.

Education Department press secretary Justin Hamilton in Washington says the administration realizes schools face steep – and unique – challenges.

We’re not recommending that there be some arbitrary closing of schools.  We know there’s a lot of hard work and investing in communities — and by hard working teachers to turn schools around — so it is important to make that point.

Hamilton says 37 states and D-C DO plan to apply for Round 2 of Race to the Top, leaving Alaska in the minority sitting out.

One of the winners in round 1 was Tennessee, which has huge rural components to it.  So we think that race to the Top is an incredible opportunity for both urban and rural states.

Tennessee is getting half a billion dollars, and the other winner, Delaware, will get about $100-million.  The Education Department says it expects more states —  probably 10 to 15 — to win in round 2.

But Fry says the feds can keep the Race to the Top money:

The amount of money involved, not certain but not likely to be more than $20-million  spread over five years.  Well $4-million a year will not turn around Alaska’s schools.  We already spend a billion dollars plus of our own money on the schools.  Four million is not the tipping point.  And if we thought it was,  we could spend our own money on that.  In fact the legislature just gave us authority to spend $7-million in the lowest achieving schools on our own improvement plans.

The Obama Administration estimates states could win far more than Fry’s estimate of $20-million, but nothing has yet been decided.

The superintendent of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest school district Carol Comeau, says she does not think applying would have been a waste of money.

I’m disappointed, because I think this would’ve been an opportunity to really engage the whole state on everything we do, but I’m not surprised at the state’s decision.

Comeau says however that she realizes the state can only write so many grants, and she’s heard the application process for Race to the Top is intensive.  And just like the state, she’s concerned about federal guidelines on dealing with failing schools.  Firing principals and teachers isn’t, she says, going to build stability and trust in Alaska’s communities.

There’s talk of allowing individual school districts to directly apply for the program in the future, and Comeau says the Anchorage School District will explore that option.

For now,  states like Alaska that opt out will still get their regular federal formula-funding.

But as the Obama Administration builds its education policy and agenda, competitions like Race to the Top may be more in play according to the U-S spokesman Justin Hamilton:

We found in the marketplace of ideas that incentive-based reforms like Race To The Top have been extremely successful.  I think that’s why the President has proposed continuing RTTT in the budget he’s submitted to Congress for next year.  So far this is a great success, and one we hope to continue.

That means the state of Alaska may face more decisions in the future over whether to apply for federal education dollars.


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