This article in the LA Times suggests that the state of California has recently been told by the federal DOE that it doesn’t need to get full participation from every district for Race to the Top as long as LAUSD (which has more students than half of the states in the US) takes part. There has been a lot of talk recently over whether it is better to have full buy-in from the districts, unions, etc. or to be bold. Duncan has had some frustration with this topic. There has been lots of speculation that because Delaware and Tennessee both had strong union support of their ideas, that was the way to go. However, Duncan has specifically said, “watered-down proposals with lots of consensus won’t win.” This points to an opening up of how the funding works. If it’s true that the strength of the proposal lies in how much reform there is, California has more incentive to target just a few districts that are willing to make greater strides than a large number of districts.
California probably figured it could win the race by shedding some weight.
Andy Smarick isn’t so sure that the article is accurate, though. His contentions are that: 1. Any application would be game if this were true, as long as they meet the data requirements. 2. It doesn’t make sense that the Department of Ed would have given them specific advice, since they are not apt to do that. And 3. It’s the judges that do the scoring, not the Ed Department anyway.
I’m not so sure there’s as big of a problem as Smarick thinks. First of all, if you take a look at the Race to the Top FAQs, question A-4 says that
The State’s applications for funding under Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (Stabilization) program must be approved by the Department prior to the State being awarded a Race to the Top grant.
It doesn’t say anything about not being allowed to make sure your application is legitimate; in fact, it implies the opposite. While the DOE last year said that LAUSD couldn’t apply on its own separate from the state, they never said the state had to have all of its districts in the race for its own application. In fact, if you take a look at section K of the FAQs, it talks about the process for LEAs (local education agencies, usually districts) to sign up (emphasis added):
Participating LEAs must agree to implement all or significant portions of the State’s plan and must enter into a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) or other binding agreement with the State that specifies the scope of work that the LEA will implement. The expectation is that participating LEAs will implement significant aspects of the State’s plan…If the State is awarded a Race to the Top grant, its participating LEAs (including those that submitted too late to be included in the application) will have up to 90 days to complete final scopes of work (referred to as Exhibit II in the model MOU). At the conclusion of that period, States will notify LEAs of their final section 14006(c) subgrant.
The implication seems to be that there is no expectation that all districts will comply. There even seems to be an expectation that they won’t and that the funding is based on those that do, rather than what the whole state is doing. So perhaps, the LA Times article wasn’t wrong, so much as misleading. What probably happened is that those in charge of the state’s application asked if they could have a more limited scope, because the population of California is bigger than the 18 smallest states combined. I don’t think that there were necessarily any lengthy negotiations of what they could or could not do. California may have submitted a proposal that was then approved. The author of the Times article also seems a bit unfamiliar with what they’re writing about, making it seem as if the deal with the Department of Ed means that the portions about charter laws and other factors can be glossed over. If anything, with fewer districts, expect the state to have its application more in line with what Duncan et al. want with more loosening of charter laws and tying performance to pay for teachers. The scenario really appears to be a win-win. The districts that participate have a higher chance of winning and the Administration doesn’t have to spend as much money if California wins, while still getting their participation.
Also, can someone please tell Andy Smarick that there are three words that start with ‘t” in Race to the Top, not two?
Update 5/6: It looks like my hunch was right. Edweek says that there was no deal between California and the Department of Ed. Rather than having a deal where California didn’t have to ask any other districts to participate (which the article never actually says, btw), the idea is that there is not a requirement that there be a large number of LEAs participating. There never was in the first place, but there were probably some conversations with Duncan encouraging the state to apply and reassuring them it would be OK. You can read the DOE’s damage control here.