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State can learn from school funds competition

So much for the notion that federal education officials would fail to match tough reform rhetoric with deeds.

A grand total of two states – Delaware and Tennessee – were deemed worthy in the first round of the $4.35 billion contest for Race to the Top funds. There goes the theory that the feds would ease up and spread the money around for political gain in an election year.

The snubbing of strong candidates such as Florida and Louisiana ought to be sobering for any state that hopes to land money during the second round of the competition, which will be decided this summer. Washington state sat out the first round, choosing instead to work on legislative fixes that might beef up its résumé.

There are two ways the state can look at this: 1) Surrender to the reality that states with a head start are still in the running; or 2) continue to align the state’s educational system with Race to the Top guidelines.

The correct approach is No. 2, because even if the state doesn’t win federal money, the goals would improve the education system for our children and benefit the state economically.

So what can the state learn from Round 1, aside from the fact that the U.S. Education Department really means what it says about reform?

First, any changes that make it easier to deliver the best possible teachers to the students most in need will score high. Second, acceptance and cooperation from educators is key. Tennessee achieved 93 percent buy-in from its teacher unions. Delaware and Tennessee got near universal support from their school districts.

The Partnership for Learning’s blog has posted a detailed analysis of the challenges Washington state faces, and nobody should be surprised if Race to the Top judges turn down the state’s application.

The state does not allow charter schools. It doesn’t allow for enough teachers to get into classrooms via alternative educational pathways. It doesn’t have sufficient incentives to get the best teachers into low-performing schools. The evaluation system for teachers and principals is too lenient and unhelpful to educators who need constructive criticism. The state does a subpar job of producing high quality teachers in science, technology and math, which is particularly crippling in a state that has a high proportion of science and engineering jobs.

Tennessee and Delaware have uniform teacher and principal evaluations that rely heavily on student performance data. The feds placed a high value on that. Washington’s version, which is part of a bill the governor signed just last week, is a pilot program.

As sobering as all of that seems, we cannot allow ourselves to be discouraged. The Legislature did pass important education bills this session and last. We need to build on those efforts for the sake of our children and the state’s economic well-being. And if the feds are ultimately impressed, the $150 million to $250 million infusion would be great.

But it’s worth doing regardless.

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