January 19th is almost here and that means applications for the first round of US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program are due. The $4.35 billion program aims to bolster states who are seeking education reform initiatives that improve student achievement. The competitive grant program is based around the areas of “standards and assessments,” “data systems to support instruction,” “great teachers and administrators,” and turning around struggling schools. Missouri made a drastic turnaround from not intending to compete for the first round of funding to jumping full on into the race.
But it remains to be seen if the late efforts can make up for a lack of early leadership and initiative on the issue. President Obama and Secretary Duncan formally announced the program on July 30, 2009, but Missouri did not decide to enter until November 13, 2009. There is no doubt that Missouri’s Education Commissioner and her staff worked hard to finalize the application in time for the January 19 deadline. But where were the calls from other education leaders to get in the race earlier? At least four states, Massachusetts, California, Nevada and Tennessee, called special legislative sessions, or made passing reform bills, to better compete for Race to the Top, the legislature’s first priority. There were no calls for a special legislative session in Missouri to work on legislation, such as charter school expansion, that would have made Missouri’s application more competitive.
The State Board also did not have Race to the Top on their formal agenda until December 18, only a month before the application was due. In this meeting the board members received a very broad overview of the state’s application and had to vote to approve it without even seeing the final application. The next state board meeting is scheduled for January 19th, the date the application is due. Dr. Nicastro stated that the vague nature of the public briefing was due to keeping the application close to the vest so that ideas were not stolen by other states. Multiple members on the board did not like the fact that they had to approve the application without reviewing it. I would ask these board members why they did not push for earlier efforts on the program by the interim Commissioner Bert Schulte? Or why did they not reschedule their January meeting for an earlier date so that they could review the application? Instead, they will hear the details of the program on day two of the January meeting on January 20. The State Senate Education Committee will also hear details of the proposal that day as well.
With the long delay in beginning the Race to the Top competition it should come as no surprise that Missouri did not qualify for application help from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation gave 25 states $250,000 to help with the application. States receiving help from the Gates Foundation are seen as clear front runners in Round One. Two states, Maryland and Vermont, did not even bother to apply for Race to the Top after being rejected by the Gates Foundation.
Even if Missouri is not successful in winning a grant in Round One, there is still Round Two. Winners for Round One will be announced in April and those who do not receive a grant will receive feedback on why their application was rejected. Applications for Round Two are due in June of 2010. This gives Missouri the entire legislative session and four State Board of Education meetings to work on real education reforms that will make the state competitive in Round Two. No matter the results of round one of Race to the Top, let’s hope Missouri focuses on finishing the race strong with leadership at all levels of the state’s education stakeholders.
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