Race to the Top, the U.S. Education Department's $4.35 billion contest, is getting personal.
The competition this year opens $400 million in grant money to school districts -- and not states, like in previous rounds -- with a focus on "personalized learning," U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will announce Tuesday.
"With this competition, we are inviting districts to show us how they can personalize education for a set of students in their schools," Duncan said in a statement. The competition -- President Barack Obama's signature education program -- is "aimed squarely at the classroom level and the all-important relationship among teachers and students," Duncan said.
School districts in Houston and Los Angeles have confirmed that they're in. Sacramento's mayor Kevin Johnson signaled his interest in a statement to The Huffington Post. Chicago, Newark and Las Vegas are also reportedly interested.
The new guidelines require ways to connect student-level data with college outcomes; evaluations that include tests for teachers, principals, school boards and superintendents; a focus on school overhauls; and the agreement of local teachers' unions.
A senior Education Department official told reporters on a conference call Monday evening that "personalized learning" would revolve around college and career readiness for each student. This might mean using technology to adjust learning to different students' levels, intense after-school tutoring or a focus on students' non-academic needs, the official said. Schools would have to report "the percentage of participating students who access their personalized learning plan (as defined in this document) on a weekly basis," according to the guidelines.
The Education Department aims to give 15 to 20 school districts from $15 million to $25 million each over four years. Districts can apply on their own or as consortia within or between states, as long as they serve at least 2,500 students, 40 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. In some cases, organizations that manage charter schools would be able to apply.
Districts would apply by October, and hear back from the government in December. Stakeholders can comment on the competition proposal for the next two weeks. According to a note in the guidelines, the Education Department is "particularly interested" in public comment on "rigorous, relevant and actionable performance measures."
Race to the Top began in 2009, requiring states interested in competing for a slice of $4.35 billion in stimulus money to prepare plans that satisfied the Obama administration's education-reform criteria, which include the growth of charter schools and linking student standardized test scores to teacher evaluations.
Race to the Top appropriations have diminished over the years, and winners from all states have postponed their reform commitments. The competition has also angered some teachers and their labor unions, who complain the competition favors wealthier states and extends the No Child Left Behind emphasis on testing favored by former president George W. Bush.
Donna Harris-Aikens, director of education policy and practice for the largest U.S. teachers' union, the National Education Association, said the NEA supports the new focus on personalized learning. "But we still hold out hope that the contours of what a successful evaluation system looks like will be adjusted in the department's view."
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union, was similarly ambivalent. “At first blush we’re encouraged to see the Race to the Top program moving to a 360-degree accountability system by including evaluations for schools boards and superintendents, not just teachers," Weingarten said in a statement. "But the larger fact remains that across our country, school districts are cutting teachers, music, art and sports programs, health care services and other critical programs our children rely on. Our focus needs to be on restoring funding for those programs and services, not on additional competitive grant programs that don’t serve all children.”
So far, 46 states have applied, and 22 have won. But several states, including Texas, have refused to apply, claiming the Obama administration is using a heavy hand to control state education issues.
The Texas refusal set off Terry Grier, the superintendent of Houston's public schools, which serve 204,000 students. Grier said he "started lobbying" Duncan a local competition two years ago. "We're coming out of a state that's very much opposed to Race to the Top," Grier told HuffPost on Monday.
Grier said Houston's application will build on a turnaround plan known as Apollo 20, which aims to apply the qualities of high-performing charter schools to underperforming public schools.
California lost the third round of the competition after pulling out of an agreement involving teacher evaluations. Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent John Deasy told HuffPost said his district will apply for the new competition. "We were very public about the fact that districts need to lead the way, especially in states that have chosen not to," Deasy said.
Deasy said he hopes to scale up small learning communities, and "schools that have done a really fine job around building a deep personalized classroom around advisory." He also would use the Race to the Top money to support the city teachers' transition to state common core curriculum standards.
Los Angeles public schools have a $6.95 billion budget, so $25 million wouldn’t add much. "You don't need to have huge sums of money to be transformative," Deasy said. "This is a gold mine."
Moving the competition below the state level may reduce its impact, said Jack Jennings, a former longtime Democratic congressional education staffer. "The federal government gets the best bang for its money when it deals at the state level," Jennings said. "It's hard to bring about change school district by school district, especially in a state like California, which has almost 1,000 school districts."
"There's not as much money, so there may not be as much enthusiasm for it," said Michael Petrilli, an education expert at the right-leaning think tank Thomas B. Fordham Institute.
A New York City official said the city hadn't decided whether to apply. Newark Mayor Cory Booker didn't return calls seeking comment Monday evening.
Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson also signaled interest. "By competing for Race to the Top funds, our city can help California on its quest to becoming a national leader in education once again and send a clear message to Washington that Sacramento wants to prepare its students not just to be in the game, but to win the game," Johnson told HuffPost in a statement. (Johnson is married to former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, who implemented many of the policies required by Race to the Top during her administration.)