The latest round of the Race To The Top grant program will allow school districts for the first time to apply directly for a share of $400 million in federal funds, rather than requiring the dollars to be funneled through state education departments. The application process is raising challenges – and questions – for many of the nation’s school districts, as they scramble to comply with the rigorous application requirements. EWA spoke with Lucy Gettman, director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association, about the challenges ahead for some of the organization’s 13,500 member districts.
1. RTTT is about competitive grant awards, a departure from the long-standing federal model of awarding funds on a per-pupil basis. Why is that problematic?
The NSBA has observed that competitive grants generally put rural, and high-need, high-poverty districts, at a disadvantage. We’ve asked Congress and the administration to provide funds without this competitive element. Whether it’s RTTT or the i3 (Investing In Innovation) grants, this is an enormously challenging process for districts, even those that are fortunate enough to have full-time grant writers.
2. What’s the general level of enthusiasm for this latest version of RTTT?
There’s been a wide range of responses. We’ve heard from school districts saying they have just the population this grant program is designed to assist, the grant is consistent with the kind of work they are doing with high-need students, and they have a vision for how to put the grant to work. We’ve talked to other districts that don’t believe the time required to complete the application—knowing how few of these awards there will actually be—is worth the investment.
3. What are some of the concerns from the districts that do want to apply?
We heard from a district in a state that hasn’t adopted the Common Core State Standards, and they wanted to know how that would impact their eligibility. We’ll be seeking clarification from the U.S. Department of Education on that point. Other concerns have to do with some of the language of the evaluation process, such as the requirement that a district have rigorous college and career standards. What constitutes rigor? Is that something the Education Department will decide?
4. The parameters for the application process were revised heavily after hundreds of individuals and organizations – including NSBA – submitted input to the Education Department. Do you believe you were heard?
We had grave reservations about the proposed school board evaluations, and we were pleased it was dropped. Since most school board members are elected officials, there is already a process for them to be evaluated before they are placed in their positions, and there is a transparent process for the public to express pleasure or displeasure with their leadership.
We remain concerned with the mandatory comment period (during which districts are required to get input from state education agencies, mayors, and other municipal entities). Responding to the comments is technically optional, but the LEAs (local education agencies) may fear losing valuable points if they do not submit responses to the comments along with the comments themselves in the application. What if comments from state or state agencies are received on the ninth or 10th day? Can the LEA realistically do a good job in responding?
5. What advice would you have for education reporters covering this story?
I would encourage them to sign up for one of the Education Department’s technical assistance webinars. It’s been enormously helpful to hear them go through the requirements provision by provision, and seeing where it all fits in.