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Posted at 1:08 PM ET, 04/13/2010

Why Obama’s schools funding approach is upsetting educators

By Valerie Strauss

As the Obama administration moves to turn more funding for federal education into competitive grants, superintendents across the country are becoming worried.

My colleague Nick Anderson wrote today about how congressional Democrats are split over the administration's plans to award innovation (that it likes) through competition. In the past, Democrats have promoted efforts to fund education through formulas based on need.

The administration is doing this with $4 billion in "Race to the Top" money--a competition in which Tennessee and Delaware beat out 14 other finalists in the first round for one-time money by submitting school reform plans that coincide with Duncan’s reform preferences. That includes more charter schools and linking teacher pay to student test scores.

But it is also planning to turn new money for the crucial Title 1 program--which provides funds for schools with large percentages of low-income students--into competitive grants. (Title 1 money that has been given out by a formula based on numbers of students in low socio-economic families will continue to be awarded by that method).

This is what is making educators are getting nervous.

“The children in winning districts will benefit, but the majority of children will be in losing districts,” Claus von Zastrow, executive director of the non-profit Learning First Alliance, a partnership of 17 leading education associations with more than 10 million members. “Small and rural districts, as well as financially strapped districts, do not have the capacity to complete competitive grant applications."

The American Association of School Administrators recently released a survey of superintendents that showed that while most believe there is a role for competitive grants, most also worry about over-investment in those grants at the expense of more stable dollars that districts can depend upon to sustain reform efforts.

Here are some excerpts from the study:

Most superintendents believe that there is a role for competitive grants, but most worry about overinvestment in those grants at the expense of more reliable funding.

Here are some excerpts from the AASA study:

* When it comes to budgeting and planning, three quarters (73 percent) disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement “Competitive grants represent a source of funding around which my district would plan long-term innovation and reform.”

* Two-thirds (65 percent) of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “Competitive grants represent a source of funding that, at best, allows my district to budget/plan short-term innovation and reform that lasts the length of the grant.”

*Ninety percent agreed or strongly agreed that “Competitive grants represent budgetary uncertainty; districts do not know if they will receive funds, how much they will receive, or when the funds will be received.”

The Learning First Alliance issued a statement about concern over the administration’s strategy. The White House and Congress are considering how to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is better known as No Child Left Behind.

It’s interesting to see the range of groups in the alliance: American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, American Association of School Administrators, American Association of School Personnel Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, American School Counselor Association, Association of School Business Officials International, Council of Chief State School Officers, National Association of Elementary School Principals, National Association of Secondary School Principals, National Association of State Boards of Education, National Education Association, National Middle School Association, National School Public Relations Association, National Staff Development Council, National PTA, National School Boards Association and Phi Delta Kappa International.

Here’s the statement:

"The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) has been a critical instrument in the federal government’s efforts to promote equity in education. The Learning First Alliance (LFA) believes equity must remain a non-negotiable goal of ESEA reauthorization. We applaud the Obama Administration’s proposal to increase federal resources for public schools in 2011. But we urge Congress to avoid provisions that could undermine, rather than support, equity.

“For this reason, ESEA should not divert substantial federal resources into competitive grant programs. This strategy threatens to penalize low-income children in school districts that lack the capacity to prepare effective grant proposals. It risks deepening the disparities between rich and poor districts, effectively denying resources to the students who need them most."

The argument makes more sense to me than turning federal education funding into a high-stakes competition. Tell me where I’m wrong.


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By Valerie Strauss  | April 13, 2010; 1:08 PM ET
Categories:  Education Secretary Duncan, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top  | Tags:  No Child Left Behind, Obama and education, Obama and school reform, Obama's blueprint, President Obama, Race to the Top, education funding, funding for schools, school reform  
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Next: Rhee back in trouble with D.C. teachers


"The argument makes more sense to me than turning federal education funding into a high-stakes competition. Tell me where I’m wrong."

Valerie, there is a simple answer to your question. You aren't wrong!

Posted by: shadwell1 | April 13, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

This is what happens when you turn over the Department of education to a basketball player -- he turns it into a sports tournament.

Posted by: efavorite | April 13, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Yeah efavorite, my brackets for March RTTT Madness are a shambles. I didn't have either Tennessee or Delaware in the first round. It seemed like Louisiana was a shoo-in for destroying the public school system in New Orleans. Let's all remember, Katrina was the best darn thing that ever happened to those school children in the Big Easy.

And I had Florida for its strong effort to turn the teachers into a slave labor force. Well more surprises ahead for the next round of "Who Wants To Destroy America's Children for the Sake of Corporate Profits."

Posted by: natturner | April 13, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse

Hey, natturner - I wonder what Rhee's latest budget debacle will do for DC's next Rttt application

Posted by: efavorite | April 13, 2010 9:17 PM | Report abuse

If senate bill 6,in Florida, gets signed?Follow the money, the 900 million from budget cuts plus Arnie Duncans "Race to the Top" millions, will make it just short of a billion dollars! Who profits, just so happens, Jeb Buschs company Empower Software Solutions,Inc. and his brother, Neal Buschs company Ignite, get rich by writing new programs for testing,while Florida schools can't afford paper to write

Posted by: roosboys | April 14, 2010 12:09 PM | Report abuse

Obama’s education reform blueprint brings us full circle, as it itself is an innovation built upon knowledge gained during NCLB (in fact, growth-model testing was piloted during NCLB after the Bush administration observed the negative effects of over-emphasis on standardized testing). That sort of wisdom learned the hard way is intrinsic to American resiliency: it began as a “great experiment” and it continues towards "a more perfect union." We experiment with new policies, and the content of those new policies remembers the value of our innovative, creative spirit.

Posted by: ChristopherCarr | April 16, 2010 11:00 AM | Report abuse

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