The starter pistol has just gone off for the second heat of the $4
billion Race to the Top grant competition, and Illinois is in the race.

The starter pistol has just gone off for the second heat of the $4 billion Race to the Top grant competition, and Illinois is in the race.

The other finalists are Arizona, California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Carolina.

Here is a color-coded map of the winners and losers.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the 19 finalists during a speech this afternoon at the National Press Club. In what was touted as a major policy address, he said the competition has sparked a “quiet revolution” in education:

  • 13 states made their laws more supportive of charter schools, and 17 tied teacher evaluations to test scores.
  • Laws prohibiting the use of student data in teacher evaluation “are gone,” Duncan said.
  • Foundations and entrepreneurs are taking an increasing role in school reform, “fronting real money and enlisting, smart, creative people willing to try new approaches to educating America’s underserved,” Duncan said.
  • 48 states are participating in efforts to develop national standards, “without a federal mandate or a federal dollar.”

He also made the case for continuing the role of competition in federal education grants. Yesterday, a group of seven civil rights organizations criticized the education department’s heavy reliance on competitive grants, saying that the strategy hurts poor and minority children.

But, Duncan said, “Nothing moves people as quickly as the opportunity for more funding – especially in tough budget times.”

The Obama Administration is asking Congress to continue the Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation grant programs next year.

The first round of Race to the Top yielded only two winners: Tennessee and Delaware. Illinois placed 5th out of 41 applicants. Duncan said today that this time, far more states will take home the remaining $3.4 billion.


“[That’s] enough to fund about 10 to 15 states, depending on whether large or small states win,” Duncan said.

Delaying the bulk of the rewards was a calculated move, he said, to get even more states to make reforms in the second round.

Teams from each of the finalist states will travel to Washington, D.C. in August to make the case that their states have the capacity and will to follow through with the pledged reforms. Then, winners will be announced in September.

During Illinois’ first application, the state generally performed well in the four federal reform areas, says Darren Reisberg, a deputy superintendent and attorney with the Illinois State Board of Education. But evaluators were less impressed with waning buy-in from school districts.

Reisberg says one factor was the rushed Round 1 deadline. Final application forms were given out in October and due in January, leaving little “face to face” time to build a unified application.

Out of Illinois’ 879 school districts, only 368 signaled support for the first round of Race to the Top. For the second round, however, that number has grown to 524 – almost 60 percent of the state’s districts and the vast majority of the state’s students.


Tim Daly, president of The New Teacher Project, a national authority on teacher recruitment and certification, says that resistance partially is due to logistical concerns from smaller school districts.

“It’s not that they don’t want to do these things, they just don’t have the resources,” Daly says.

Even so, Robin Steans, executive director of the education think tank Advance Illinois, says the state has an excellent chance now because of legislation approved by the General Assembly this year.

That includes increasing the number of charter schools and creating tougher standards for certifying principals, as well as bills that require school districts to work with their union on teacher evaluation and let non-profits offer alternative teacher certification programs.

If Illinois wins, Steans says, the more immediate changes will be investment in new infrastructure and computer technology – especially Illinois’ longitudinal data system, which will track student performance from preschool through post-secondary education and the workforce.

But Duncan said in a conference call after his speech that even the states that don’t win will benefit from the contest’s “consensus-building process”: Groups that often find themselves at odds managed to find enough common ground to sign on to applications together.

Duncan’s words are likely to draw fire from the increasing number of Race to the Top opponents, including unions irked by the emphasis on charter schools and achievement-based teacher evaluations, as well as others who believe the private sector has an outsized influence on education.

Perhaps to allay those fears, Duncan is holding a radio town hall meeting with teachers on Thursday.

But in today’s speech, Duncan kept his tough stance toward failing schools.

“Too many schools, including many charter schools, are simply not providing students with an education that prepares them for college and careers,” Duncan said. “And they need to change the way they do business – or go out of business.”

In particular, he targeted inequities in education and outlined steps to combat them:

  • Using civil rights laws to “target [underperforming] schools for enforcement.”
  • Requiring the measurement of student growth, rather than proficiency, in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. “If we know how much students are gaining, we will know which teachers and principals are succeeding, which ones need more support and help, and which ones are simply not getting the job done,” Duncan says.
  • Holding states and school districts accountable for performance, in addition to schools.
  • Improving assessments so they measure student growth and critical thinking, and tying test results to teacher pay and evaluations.

Chase Castle is a Springfield-based writer.

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