Illinois loses out in Race to the Top’s first round

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Education Secretary Arne Duncan today announced two states, Delaware and Tennessee, have won nearly $600 million in first round Race to the Top grants. That leaves nearly $3.4 billion for what officials hope to be a spirited second round of vetting in June.

“We set a very high bar for the first phase,” Duncan said in a prepared statement. “Both states have statewide buy-in for comprehensive plans to reform their schools. They have written new laws to support their policies.  And they have demonstrated the courage, capacity, and commitment to turn their ideas into practices that can improve outcomes for students.”

Illinois, one of 16 first round finalists named earlier this month, placed fifth in the point totals awarded by judges; a ranking that should bolster state officials who wrote what many national observers labeled a surprisingly strong application.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan today announced two states, Delaware and Tennessee, have won nearly $600 million in first round Race to the Top grants. That leaves nearly $3.4 billion for what officials hope to be a spirited second round of vetting in June.

“We set a very high bar for the first phase,” Duncan said in a prepared statement. “Both states have statewide buy-in for comprehensive plans to reform their schools. They have written new laws to support their policies.  And they have demonstrated the courage, capacity, and commitment to turn their ideas into practices that can improve outcomes for students.”

Illinois, one of 16 first round finalists named earlier this month, placed fifth in the point totals awarded by judges; a ranking that should bolster state officials who wrote what many national observers labeled a surprisingly strong application.

Early on, the state was deemed only somewhat competitive by The New Teacher Project. But Illinois lawmakers were able to follow up key charter school reforms with legislation that requires teacher evaluation overhauls across the state.

Race to the Top reviewers rewarded the state with relatively strong marks in the area of charter schools and teacher evaluation, plus gave the state high marks for its efforts to turnaround struggling schools and adopt emerging national academic standards.

“Illinois should be proud it produced such a strong Race to the Top application,” says Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois. But she noted that Illinois may have had a stronger case if every school district signed on. Only 74 percent of students were represented by the school districts which issued memorandums of commitment to Phase 1.

“Duncan made it clear that Delaware and Tennessee helped themselves considerably by getting support from districts representing all students in their states,” she said.

Indeed, Illinois lost six points for failing to secure total participation among school districts. And unlike Tennessee, where 90 percent of the state’s teachers unions backed reform plans, Illinois could only muster about half as much.

Results from a complicated 500-point scoring system shows Illinois lost significant points for failing to close achievement gaps in recent years. More points were lost due to a failure to prove that the best teachers and school leaders are in high-needs areas.

Out of 138 possible points, Illinois scored just 110 for nurturing teacher talent. In this category, seven points were docked for having too few top-notch teachers in high-poverty districts. More points were docked because the state apparently has not laid out a compelling plan for improving teacher and principal preparation programs.

While Illinois plans for overhauling teacher evaluations clearly helped, the state nonetheless lost points for failing to clearly link its new evaluation systems with school decision making.

When Gov. Pat Quinn sent five representatives to Washington DC earlier this month to defend the state’s application, judges focused their questions on the aggressive timelines and personnel needs sewn into Illinois’ reform plans. State Supt. Chris Koch, who headed the delegation, admitted that looming cuts to state school spending raised serious questions for the state’s Race to the Top application.

But the state scored relatively well for prioritizing school funding and even earned reasonably good marks for its “capacity” to enact change.

Still, says Steans of Advance Illinois, “there’s no question that if we take a backward step on funding it’s going to hurt us.”

State officials will now review comments and scores from judges and prepare another application that is due June 1. One change that will be forced on Illinois: the US Department of Education will be capping the requested budgets of state applicants. Illinois requested $510 million in round one. It will need to trim about $100 million from its application plans for round two.

“Most of the money is still in the kitty, that’s the good news,” says Steans.