WASHINGTON, June 23 - As the U.S. Education Department (ED) spends the summer deciding which additional states will win Race to the Top (RTT) grants - 35 states and the District of Columbia are vying for a share of $3.4 billion - some are reviewing the first RTT competition to highlight lessons learned.
For a report released this month, Race to the Top: What Grantmakers Can Learn from the First Round, the nonprofit Foundation Center interviewed eight government leaders, foundation staff and education consultants for their perspective on the initial RTT application process in nine states (click here, for more on foundations and education reform).
The complexities of applying for RTT meant that many governors and state departments of education turned to foundations for help in devising reform agendas, changing state laws and completing the lengthy application. (Out of 41 initial applicants and 16 finalists during Phase I, ED chose just two state winners, Delaware and Tennessee, in late March.)
But it turns out that negotiations to secure the participation of various constituencies - unions, education leaders, school districts and others - were especially hard, because RTT required an "unprecedented" level of collaboration among various groups, the report said.
Trish Brennan-Gac, counsel and senior policy advisor at the nonprofit consulting group Learning Point Associates, agreed that states struggled to organize stakeholders in the first round.
However, Brennan-Gac - who analyzed all the Phase I RTT applications and is in the process of doing the same with the Phase II proposals - said in an interview that she expected states will be better at engaging stakeholders in second round.
"A few states didn't make progress there, but a number of states did," she said of Phase II proposals. "I think states took it a little bit more seriously and got over some of the inertia they had internally to try to make a little bit more progress."
Another area of difficulty in the first round was garnering memorandums of understanding (MOUs) - essentially pledges of commitment from school districts to the state's RTT educational reform agenda. One person from a state a with a good working relationship between the education department and governor nevertheless told the Foundation Center that finding time to secure MOUs from various constituencies - while also helping them understand the decision-making process - was difficult. Another Western state official said the high level of local control over education decisions slowed the MOU-gathering effort.
Convincing school districts to take part in RTT wasn't always easy, the report said. A few of the individuals interviewed by the Foundation Center said convincing affluent and rural school districts alike to provide MOUs was tough - albeit for different reasons. Some officials from wealthier school districts didn't feel they needed to reform, while rural representatives said the government's involvement wasn't justified in light of the amount of money they'd receive in return.
Some interviewees told the Foundation Center that there were too many cooks in the RTT kitchen. With ideas being submitted by everyone from education policy groups to foundations to corporations, applicants spent too much time having "to manage the feedback," according to the report. Others discovered that it was hard to work together on RTT following "bruising" budget battles and intense union negotiations.
Foundations were able to help RTT applicants in a variety of ways, the report found. Some simply provided money for consultants to help states hire people to prepare RTT proposals and otherwise took a hands-off approach. Others worked directly with state leaders to "shape application priorities."
Some interviewees said the level of required detail in the application was an obstacle to presenting a clear vision for education reform, but most said the greater challenge was a muddled education reform outlook in general. Among the causes were state agency focus on compliance over innovation, lack of capacity to develop a successful application and too many outside voices weighing in on the process, the report found.
Not surprisingly, said the Foundation Center, the greater the governor's involvement in the RTT application, the stronger the result, adding that "mounting a highly scored application was easiest for states that had already established ambitious education reform agendas."
Others broad concerns cited in the report include:
Worry that if a state wins an RTT grant, it will have trouble with reporting requirements;
Concern that winning states would be unable to find "high-quality organizations to serve states and deliver the capacity they will need"; and
That the grant itself may not be "sufficient to implement all of the strategies that the winning states outlined in their applications."
- Erika Fitzpatrick