Illinois one of 16 finalists for first round of Race to the Top grants

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Once thought to be on the outside looking in, Illinois instead has joined 14 other states and the District of Columbia as finalists for Phase One of the Race to the Top grants. A victory could pour as much as an estimated $510 million into the state’s education coffers to drive sweeping reforms.

 

To be sure, Illinois has won exactly $0 so far.

 

“We are setting a high bar and we anticipate very few winners in phase one,” noted U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “But this isn’t just about the money. It’s about collaboration among all stakeholders, building a shared agenda, and challenging ourselves to improve the way our students learn.”

 

Illinois was considered a long shot last fall, when The New Teacher Project ranked it “somewhat competitive” in the Race to the Top. But a flurry of legislative activity in January, coupled with what some national observers have called a strongly written application, helped the state leapfrog ahead.

Once thought to be on the outside looking in, Illinois instead has joined 14 other states and the District of Columbia as finalists for Phase One of the Race to the Top grants. A victory could pour as much as an estimated $510 million into the state’s education coffers to drive sweeping reforms.

 

To be sure, Illinois has won exactly $0 so far.

 

“We are setting a high bar and we anticipate very few winners in phase one,” noted U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “But this isn’t just about the money. It’s about collaboration among all stakeholders, building a shared agenda, and challenging ourselves to improve the way our students learn.”

 

Illinois and 40 other states produced exhaustive reform agendas for a shot at $4 billion in the competitive grants carved out under the stimulus bill last year. In this first round, no more than $2 billion will be awarded to a handful of states, Duncan said.

 

States were asked to document existing school policies and ultimately bring together teachers, legislators and other stakeholders to craft plans in four reform areas: improving standards and assessments, improving teacher effectiveness, creating data systems to support student achievement and overhauling their lowest-performing schools.

 

Illinois was considered a long shot last fall, when The New Teacher Project ranked it “somewhat competitive” in the Race to the Top. But a flurry of legislative activity in January, coupled with what some national observers have called a strongly written application, helped the state leapfrog ahead.

 

“Illinois did as much as anyone in the time given to improve its position and they should be hugely proud,” says Tim Daly of New Teacher Project. He points out one of the state’s clear competitive advantages: relatively strong support and collaboration from the state’s teacher unions. The Chicago Teachers Union did not support the bid, although its state parent, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, did so.

 

Other states struggled to get unions to back some of the controversial reforms sought by Duncan’s administration. But Illinois was able to get signed letters of support from the Illinois Education Association as well as the IFT. The unions also played a major role in hammering out the legislation that will expand charter schools—with extra oversight—and require overhauls of teacher evaluation across the state. The legislation, Daly notes, surely scored well among Race to the Top judges.

 

In a statement from the IFT, union leaders expressed a sense of pride in the state’s accomplishment and hope that the state would eventually win money to help relieve fiscal pressure on schools.

 

Robin Steans, executive director for Advance Illinois—an organization that also worked to bring stakeholders together, says it’s difficult to “overstate how important union support is.” She adds, “It’s going to take that kind of ‘all hands on deck’ approach to see change happen.”

 

Illinois may have outdone other states on the union front, but it did not bat a thousand. The CTU refused to sign a “memorandum of understanding” with district leaders over the state’s Race to the Top bid. Union leaders worried that it would conflict with some of the protections that have been negotiated in the past for teachers, particularly around the overhaul of teacher evaluations.

 

The CTU and CPS have been working together on changing evaluations, but the process broke down last year and went into arbitration when district negotiators refused to give up the power principals now have to fire non-tenured teachers, even if they earn good evaluation marks.

 

But Daly says Illinois doesn’t really need the CTU’s support because the new laws passed in January require all districts to eventually change the way teacher effectiveness is measured—including the use of student performance data, which the Duncan administration has emphasized. Those bills would not have passed without some measure of union support, he contends.

 

“Two states passed major statewide teacher overhauls, Tennessee and Illinois,” he notes. “Both made the finals.”

 

Daly says New York City teachers also refused to sign memorandums of understanding on Race to the Top. But their refusal should cost their state more points than Chicago’s refusal will cost Illinois. Daly says that New York was unable to pass a law mandating change. Likewise, in Colorado, the best legislators could muster was a task force that will work on the issue.

 

“In Illinois and Tennessee, you have perfect clarity about what is going to happen and when,” he says.

 

Next steps

 

To win in April, Illinois needs to assemble a delegation that will travel to Washington, D.C. and defend the state’s application before a panel of judges. Most finalists will return empty-handed, forced to revise and resubmit their applications in a second round of vetting in June.

 

Duncan wants to ensure “vigorous competition” in the next round and plans to award no more than $2 billion in April. Presentations by finalists—designed to give judges a better sense of which state’s have the capacity to carry out reforms—will be videotaped and posted online after winners are picked. As part of what Duncan says will be “unprecedented transparency” in the process, the Department of Education will also post online the comments and final scores from judges on all 41 Phase One applications once the winners have been selected.

 

The transparency, says Duncan, will carry through into financial oversight. With states like Illinois swimming in red ink, some worry that lawmakers will use Race to the Top money to supplant other education funding. But Duncan notes that winners will have to develop “work plans” for spending. The grant will be doled out in multiple installments and his administration will monitor to make sure states are making a “good-faith effort” to target their grant dollars toward intended reforms. If not, he adds, their grants will dry up.

 

Illinois officials have not yet decided who will defend their bid in Washington. Likely candidates include state Supt. Chris Koch, who was instrumental in the crafting of Illinois’ 600-page application, plus a delegate from Gov. Pat Quinn’s office. Leaders from teacher unions and key school districts may also be called into action.

 

Daly says Illinois’ top weakness is that, outside of Chicago, little has been done to fix struggling schools. He says the model on this front is Louisiana, where the state can take over failing schools anywhere in the state.

 

Illinois’ application focuses heavily on this potential shortcoming, having established 12 “super local education agencies” to spearhead turnaround efforts. The state has also pre-approved several partner organizations to work with struggling schools, including the Academy of Urban School Leadership.

 

Louisiana is also considered a front-runner because it was one of the first states to forge ahead on accountability systems for teacher preparation programs. Other states like Florida and Tennessee are believed to be favored in the competition because they have experimented more radically with the use of student performance data in school accountability.

 

Daly was surprised to see New York make the list. The state legislature failed to pass an increase in the charter school cap, one area of change that federal officials have advocated. The state also has laws on the books that complicate the use of student performance data in teacher evaluations, rules that some believe should have disqualified New York from the competition.

 

He was surprised, on the other hand, to see Indiana left off the list. The state’s application adhered closely to the overall guidance provided by federal officials, Daly says. In fact, the state was the only one to actually map out exactly how teacher evaluation scores would impact compensation and promotion.

 

Another weakness he spied in Illinois: the state’s assessments. Daly says the state will need to first revamp its standards and assessments before student results can be effectively used in teacher evaluations. Other finalists don’t face this problem, he says.

 

Matt Vanover, spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Education, says that problem is really more of an opportunity. “That can be part of the Common Core [standards effort] going forward for us.”

 

Illinois’ application includes plans to create a series of interim assessments in conjunction with the national common standards movement. Those standards are expected to be adopted by August.

 

But all of these efforts could slow down considerably if Illinois fails to win a Race to the Top grant. For example, the state’s application includes funding requests for school-level support, such as learning guides and new textbooks, as educators work to adopt the new common standards and assessments.

 

Likewise, changes to teacher evaluations would be slowed down if money never materializes. The state will need to pay for the training and certification of evaluators, plus the online systems that will allow researchers and the public to use new evaluations as a way to rate schools.

 

State officials say they will plod forward with Race to the Top reforms with or without the cash.

 

Finally, there are questions about the ability to keep stakeholders together as the state tries to weather a severe financial storm. Unions, lawmakers and school administrators will be fighting over issues like pension reform. The tumult, if it’s not managed well, could spill over and affect some of the reforms taking place under Race to the Top.

 

“This shouldn’t be treated as a panacea,” says Steans of Advance Illinois. “But it’s certainly better to have a plan and dollars behind it.”