Washington News

seattletimes.com, February 3, 2010

State's entry idling at start line in Race to Top
While 40 states and the District of Columbia have jumped into the high-profile education competition known as Race to the Top, Washington state has yet to reach the start line.

By Linda Shaw, Seattle Times education reporter

A few weeks ago, 40 states and the District of Columbia jumped into the high-profile education competition known as Race to the Top, submitting applications up to 1,000 pages long to make their case for a share of $4.35 billion in federal prize money.

In Washington state, meanwhile, officials have yet to reach the starting line.

That doesn't mean Washington has no chance at a Race to the Top grant, which could bring anywhere from $150 million to $250 million to a state this size.

The competition will have at least two rounds, with winners in each one.

Washington officials are working on an application for Round 2, which starts in June. As a first step, Gov. Chris Gregoire has brokered bills, now before lawmakers, that would revamp teacher and principal evaluations, give the state power to intervene in failing schools and strengthen other policies aimed at helping Washington compete.

Those moves would be bold for Washington, but many say the state needs to go much further if it wants to be a strong contender.

Some question whether it should; others doubt it will.

Without big changes between now and June, Washington doesn't have a chance, said Marguerite Roza, associate professor in the University of Washington's College of Education.

Given the dire state of the economy, President Obama already has channeled billions of dollars into schools in all states to save jobs and programs.

But Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan want to do more than fill holes. Starting with Race to the Top, they are advocating policies they believe will vastly improve the nation's schools.

Duncan repeatedly has said it's a race to the top, not a race to the middle. He wants to reward states that are willing and able to blaze new, innovative paths for others to follow.

States can get up to 500 points in the competition by proposing specific plans such as expanding charter schools, giving raises to top teachers or basing a significant part of teacher evaluations on their students' performance.

Past successes count, and so do future plans. So does having a coherent plan to improve student achievement rather than a list of unconnected efforts, and gaining the support of the teachers and administrators who must carry out that plan.

There's so much covered that some education experts say it's impossible to predict which states will win, or why. But it's clear that Washington isn't yet considering some of what Duncan is looking for.

Charter schools, for one, which Washington voters have rejected three times. Gregoire's bill also doesn't call for paying bonuses to top teachers, while other states are talking as much as $10,000 a year.

One state — Texas — has told Washington, D.C., to keep its money. But that's the only state that is ignoring the Race to the Top program.

In Washington state, officials stress they're considering only policies they believe will be good for this state. And not everyone is sold on all of Duncan's ideas, many of which are more promising than proven.

"The money's not worth doing just anything," said Mary Lindquist, president of the Washington Education Association (WEA), the state's largest teachers union.

The union strongly opposes charter schools and basing even part of teachers' evaluations on how well their students perform. Lindquist says teaching is simply much more a team effort.

Still, the WEA is playing a much bigger role in helping Gregoire pass her bills than many would have guessed. And many credit the union for its willingness to support ideas it has opposed in the past, such as changing the teacher-evaluation system.

The WEA "is taking some pretty significant risks in this deal," said Paul Rosier, executive director of the Washington Association of School Administrators.

Other key provisions of the bills:

• Allowing Washington to gain more teachers from nonuniversity programs such as Teach for America, which recruits recent college graduates and professionals to teach for two years in low-income communities;

• Committing the state to using a set of national learning standards now under development (48 states have signed on to that effort);

• Extending the time it takes for teachers to receive tenure from two years to three;

• Making it possible for districts to reward teachers for innovation, although that would be defined and negotiated in each school district.

One of Washington's strengths might lie in persuading districts to buy into its plan.

"There's no value in any of this if it doesn't end up being able to be implemented on the ground, in real schools and real classrooms," said state Board of Education Chairwoman Mary Jean Ryan.

In the first round of Race to the Top, she said, "you saw a lot of states ... put out quote 'bold' ideas, but when it came time to get local community buy-in, it kind of fell apart."

As Washington works on its application, many are lobbying for features they'd like to include.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn, for example, said he'd like to see higher pay for top teachers. He also would like to shorten the time it takes to remove poor teachers from the classroom and base part of a teacher's evaluation on the performance of their students.

A consortium of education, business and community-based organizations called Excellent Schools Now also wants teacher-performance pay. The group also is pushing for extra pay for teachers who work in high-poverty schools or in hard-to-fill jobs and wants to base half of teachers' evaluations on how well their students do.

But one potential roadblock to all those ideas is the teachers union.

Lindquist called the governor's bills "a delicate balance" that the union can support as long as legislators don't change them much.

But despite her concerns about some of the Race to the Top criteria, Lindquist said she believes it's worth applying for the money. "I understand when the state is broke that you can't just turn away from the potential of getting $150-$250 million."

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

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