Restrictions on the Use of the Grant Mean the Money Can't Help Restore Education Cuts
The US Dept. of Education has released its rules for districts applying to receive Race to the Top grants. They allow individual districts or a consortia of districts to apply directly to the federal government for the money, bypassing state education officials. This is particularly significant in California, where the state Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson, and Governor Jerry Brown took the state out of the running for the federal grant, citing the billions of dollars it would need to spend to meet the grant requirements and the program’s emphasis on standardized test scores to show student learning achievement. The grants are for up to $25 million over four years. Given the dire financial straits of most school districts, many may be tempted to apply.
The money can only be used for certain purposes--the focus being on individualizing instruction for students so that they graduate prepared for college and careers. Districts don't have to use the money to serve all their students. They could focus solely on low-performing schools, a particular group of low-performing schools or certain grade levels. Once again all this is to be "data driven" so each student's progress must be tracked.
What hoops do districts have to jump through to receive this money? Districts must meet the same four assurances that states had to meet when they applied: teacher quality; school turnarounds; improving "data quality" and enhancing standards and assessments. By the 2014-15, school year districts who apply for the grant must promise to put in place evaluation systems for teachers, principals, superintendents and school boards that incorporate students "outcomes"--meaning test scores.
There's not much doubt that SCUSD's Supt. Raymond will want to pursue this RTTT grant. The district could join a consortium of other districts. Raymond belongs to CORE, a group of California district Superintendents that are committed to pursuing federal education policy, even as the state of California has decided to go its own way. Twenty-five million dollars over four years is not a lot of money for a large urban district like Sacramento City Unified. Since it can only be used for "individualized learning" the money would do nothing to help the chronic under funding of the district. It can’t go to prevent teacher layoffs. It won't go to restore librarians or counselors. It won't help keep music and the arts in our schools. It can't restore the lost days of instruction that teachers have agreed to cut in order to balance the budget, which could be as many as 10 days if Gov. Brown's tax initiative fails.
If the district won a grant, the money might be used to benefit only some of the students in the district, such as those in SCUSD's Priority Schools, but the evaluation system would be in effect for all teachers district wide. Sacramento City Unified and its teachers would have to agree to fundamentally change how teachers are assessed. Moreover the district would have to have a data system in place to track each student from pre-K through post-secondary education that includes a link of student performance to their teachers. Such a system would cost money to develop—and many statistical and data experts question the efficacy of these systems in the first place. That also opens the possibility of more dollars being spent on expensive consultants and not on the classroom. That requirement, along with the other "assurances" the district must make to win the $4 million a year grant for individualized learning, could actually end up costing the district more than that.
It seems that submitting an application for the RTTT grant could be a risky proposition for a district that is teetering on the brink of financial solvency. SCUSD might be making promises it can't afford to fulfill for a grant that will do nothing to help provide a quality education for all the students of the district.