School boards consider Race to Top


Several area districts already signed on

The Spokane School Board will vote tonight on whether to support the state’s proposal to compete for a share of $3.4 billion in federal Race to the Top funds.

Millions of dollars will be granted to the state with the best K-12 school reform plan. In Washington, that includes plans for tougher teacher and principal evaluations, curriculum to make students more competitive in math and science, and improving early-childhood education. Washington’s grant request is for $250 million.

But school districts have been slow to sign on. Only 69 of the state’s 295 districts had submitted the official paperwork as of Tuesday afternoon. The deadline is Monday.

In Delaware and Tennessee, the states successful in the first competition, all school districts were on board, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire said.

The slow pace in Washington is making state officials a little nervous; the key to winning the grant is support from a majority of districts. While the Seattle and Tacoma districts have agreed to participate, Spokane Public Schools – the state’s second-largest district – has yet to sign on.

Nathan Olson, spokesman for the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, said, “For the most part, we are taking a wait and see attitude.”

Most districts are supportive of the idea, Gregoire said. Those with hesitation have asked if the Obama administration is telling local schools what to do. The answer, the governor said, is “absolutely not. We are going to implement changes whether we get this or not.”

State Superintendent Randy Dorn added that the state’s education reform plans have been in the works for several years.

Colfax School District, about 60 miles south of Spokane, initially declined.

“It’s just not very much money (for us) with vague requirements about how much reporting we’ll need to do,” Superintendent Michael Morgan said.

Officials there were concerned the district may need to hire someone to track how the grant money was being used, and keep data on its impact. But after gaining a better understanding of the requirements, the Colfax School Board voted Monday to support the application.

State officials say if Washington wins and the reform requirements are too costly or demanding, any district can back out in the first 90 days.

The Spokane School Board discussed the application last week, with much skepticism. Concerns ranged from money being too narrowly earmarked to some of the curriculum guidelines being less rigorous than Washington’s current plans.

Spokane Superintendent Nancy Stowell said the federal program supports several initiatives the district has been working on, including better teacher and principal evaluations and better ways to measure a student’s academic progress throughout the year, rather than through one test at the end of the year.

If Washington wins the grant, 40 school districts in Spokane and the surrounding area would split about $3 million annually. The amount each district receives is based on enrollment and the number of students who receive free or reduced-price lunch.

Spokane Public Schools would receive about $1.6 million annually, Central Valley about $263,000, and Mead about $198,000. Additionally, $55 million in competitive grants will be available.

If a district chooses not to sign on now, it can reconsider if the state wins and still receive some of the federal money.

“It’s not a great way of doing business – saying, essentially, ‘I don’t want to play, but if you get money, I will play’ – but it is permissible under Race to the Top rules,” Olson said.

So far, Cheney, Wilbur, Freeman, Pullman, Brewster, Omak, Davenport, Cusick and Tekoa school districts in Eastern Washington have submitted participation agreements to the state. The East Valley, West Valley, Mead and Central Valley districts will soon join them, local school officials said.

Meanwhile, state officials are counting down to Monday’s deadline. Gregoire said, “If we don’t get an overwhelming response, we will have to ask ourselves if we make the application.”

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