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Race To The Top For Districts Piques Interest Of Chicago And Los Angeles Mayors

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EMANUEL VILLARAIGOSA EDUCATION
Villaraigosa, Emanuel and Bloomberg discuss education at an MSNBC conference. | Getty Images

Opening a new phase for the Obama administration's role in education reform, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa signaled interest in applying for the revamped, district-level Race to the Top competition.

"The idea ... that districts will now be allowed to compete for Race to the Top in states like mine, where they haven't really wanted to have a competitive bid, is really heartening," Villaraigosa said, speaking on a Friday morning panel with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Emanuel and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

"We will now, on our own, be able to put our performance, our reforms, our changes with an idea toward a set of results ... and not be tied to what goes on at the state level," Emanuel said, who went on to describe the district-level competition as "a significant change."

The two mayors were referring to Race to the Top, the Obama administration's signature education program. States interested in competing for a slice of $4.35 billion in stimulus money had to prepare plans that satisfied the administration's education-reform criteria, which included encouraging the growth of charter schools and linking student test scores to teacher evaluations. A panel of peer reviewers assembled by the Education Department assigned states' plans different point values and doled out the money on that basis.

Race to the Top's appropriations have diminished over the years, and winners from the first two rounds have all postponed their reform commitments -- so much so in the case of Hawaii that Duncan has threatened to revoke the state's funding. The competition has also angered some teachers and their unions, who say that RTTT furthers No Child Left Behind's emphasis on standardized tests.

When Duncan received $500 million more in appropriations to continue RTTT this year, he said he would allow districts to compete on their own. "There's a huge appetite there," Duncan said at the time. (Duncan has not yet released details as to what the competition would entail this time around.)

While Illinois did win in the third round, it only snagged $43 million, just 10 percent of what it might have won in earlier rounds. California, though, lost in two rounds because of what Duncan called an incomplete application: California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) didn't sign onto RTTT pledges that mandated specific school turnaround strategies and tying students' test scores to teacher ratings.

But in Los Angeles, whose local newspaper calculated and released teachers' grades based on student test scores in 2010, Villaraigosa and his schools superintendent John Deasy are enthusiastic about such reforms. "There is the will in the city of Los Angeles, in Chicago and New York, to tie reform to more money, to ... get the kind of flexibility that we need to innovate and set the highest standards for kids," said Villaraigosa, who was recently chosen to chair this year's Democratic National Committee.

Villaraigosa, Emanuel and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, together with their schools chiefs, joined Duncan at American University Friday morning to partake in "Education Now," an MSNBC conference hosted by Andrea Mitchell. The conversation ran the gamut from school closures to student safety to Rick Santorum's allegation of "snobbishness" about Barack Obama's college attainment goals, but chatter about the role of standardized testing data in education ruled the day.

Bloomberg and New York City Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott are fresh off the public release of the flawed "value-added ratings" of teachers, a controversial move that Bill Gates called "a capricious exercise in public shaming" in a recent New York Times op-ed.

When Mitchell asked Walcott to justify the release of the data, Walcott said, "It's all about accountability. ... This is a limited piece of information, and they [parents] have to view the teachers in a full context."

Bloomberg chimed in: "Incidentally, Gates does give information at Microsoft to the people that need it, namely the managers of the people being evaluated. In our case, it's the principals and the parents who need that information, so we're not doing anything differently from what Microsoft does." (As Gates himself noted in the Times, Microsoft does not, in fact, publish its evaluations in newspapers.)

Emanuel also touted sending principal ratings to parents in Chicago, saying that principal enrollment in training programs has subsequently increased.

Deasy called data "the underground currency of privilege," saying that it is incumbent upon districts to disseminate it. He called publicizing educational results "a rights issue for parents." Villaraigosa is now trying to add letter grades to school report cards.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, appeared earlier Friday on "Morning Joe" to argue in favor of addressing broader social problems, in addition to strengthening educational testing and evaluation. "It's not constantly about plopping somebody in and saying, 'Okay, you're good, you're bad,'" she said. "You actually do have to, not say poverty is an excuse, but we have to try to trump it. If kids come in hungry, we have to feed them."

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