Washington schools not too supportive of contest for federal funds

  • Sat May 15th, 2010 11:18pm
  • News

By Jerry Cornfield, Herald Columnist

Washington’s education establishment is making Gov. Chris Gregoire and public schools chief Randy Dorn sweat.

Monday night is the deadline for the state’s 295 school districts to join the state in the competition for federal dollars known as Race to the Top.

As of Friday, a little more than half of the districts had signed up with the state and one, South Whidbey School District, formally told the state no.

Absent a significant number of districts representing the vast majority of students, Gregoire and Dorn will be hard-pressed to compete for a $250 million grant.

Imagine trying to convince those judging the grant applications to send federal dollars here if a bunch of school districts don’t want it? (Most Snohomish County districts do, by the way.)

That’s why Gregoire and Dorn have spent the last couple of weeks lobbying school boards and teacher unions and superintendents on how the potential benefits outweigh the projected costs.

On the plus side, it’s much-needed money. The state could get $250 million spread over four years starting in January. Not a massive amount, though not chump change, either.

State number-crunchers broke it down by districts so, for example, the Everett School District, which signed up this week, stands to gain $2 million over four years.

On the minus side sit educators worried that winning will result in surrendering local control and running schools the way the U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wants them run.

And there are those, like South Whidbey, calculating the payoff is not worth the time and money to follow all the rules that will come with any funds.

β€œThe requirements for reporting services to be provided, meetings to be attended, required personnel, and data collection do not seem to be adequately covered by the minimal funding we would receive,” Superintendent Fred McCarthy wrote to the governor’s office May 4. The district stood to gain $36,377 a year if it signed up and the state won the grant.

Washington’s odds of succeeding are slim. Forty states and the District of Columbia applied in the first round of Race to the Top earlier this year, and only Delaware and Tennessee received money.

States earn points for such things as charter schools and performance pay for teachers β€” which don’t exist in Washington the way Duncan and the judges imagine them. States also get credit if local school districts are on the same page for improving schools. That’s measured by the percentage of districts turning in partnership agreements signed by teachers, principals, superintendents and school board representatives.

Washington didn’t apply in the first round in January because, frankly, everyone knew the state didn’t stand a chance.

Gregoire, Dorn, state lawmakers and the education establishment instead hashed out a plan for changes they hope make the state’s application read stronger. One aspect is that school districts won’t have to cede power in order to share in any Race to the Top award.

Whether that will be enough to get most districts on the team will be known by midnight Monday.

Washington can’t win anything if it doesn’t enter the competition. It’s clear what the state loses out by not trying at all β€” an amount worth sweating over.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at www.heraldnet.com. Contact him at 360-352-8623 or jcornfield@heraldnet.com.