Setting a Start Time for the Race

While the public comment period is now closed on Race to the Top and we await finalization of the RttT RFP and guidance that will direct states’ applications (as if those aren’t fully underway, as evidenced by the 15 Gates-funded states that have been hard at work on their apps for months and drafts of apps such as those circulated recently by Illinois), some additional details are now coming into sight with regard to timetable.

We’ve all been expecting tight turnaround on these grants.  Most expect the final RFP to be released within the next few weeks (mid-September has long been viewed as the target).  And some were overly aggressive in their expectations, thinking that Phase I applications would be due in October, with awards made before the end of the year.  In fact, Eduflack had recently heard from a “front-running” state that the President may be looking to award Phase I RttT grants in mid-November.
But a little-publicized letter this week from EdSec Arne Duncan provides us some better insights on both timetable and intentions.  In a missive dated August 31, the EdSec issued the call for RttT application reviewers.  The full letter can be found here .  But there are some interesting nuggets of information we shouldn’t overlook.
Clearly, there is not a reviewer panel in waiting.  And the language about conflicts of interest and expected qualifications means that ED will be working with a relatively small pool.  CVs/applications for recommended reviewers are due by September 30.  And they are expecting the sun and moon when it comes to quals.  (We also expect reviewers to be self-motivated, as reviewers will primarily work individually).
But the timetable put forward in the letter, letting potential applicants know of the possible time commitments, is what is most intriguing.  ED is expecting Phase I application reviews (those many hoped would be awarded before the end of the calendar year) to occur between January 2010 and March 2010 (meaning awards at the end of the 2009-2010 school year).  Phase II reviews are slated to take place between June 2010 and September 2010, meaning awards right around election time 2010.
The timing is significant.  We sometimes forget that RttT has to happen in two phases.  We are now taking of Phase I awards in late spring 2010, and phase II awards at the end of 2010.  Those are awards to the states.  Once a state wins the big Race prize, school districts within that state then need to apply for access to those funds (or at least to the 50% of the RttT grant required to go to the LEAs).  So at best, we are talking about RttT Phase I money making its way to actual school districts for the 2010-2011 school year, but more likely the 2011-2012 school year (figuring states will need more than three months to set up their own RFP process, allow LEAs to submit proposals, review, and then award).  So we may be three school years away from that money reaching the ground level, and four years away before the same happens for Phase II grantees.  
Why is this so important?  That’s a long time to wait before real dollars start flowing for turnarounds and school improvements.  Congress has already been signaling that it is unlikely to provide additional federal education dollars beyond that scoped out in SFSF, RttT, and i3.  Congressional authorizers and appropriators want to see some return on their investment, particularly when the majority of SFSF money continues to sit untouched, despite many states talking about teacher furloughs.  So a second round of RttT funding won’t happen until we see results on the ground.  And we don’t even anticipate getting dollars into the very schools that need them the most until three years from now — at the earliest.  At to that the research realities that it often takes four to five years to see the longitudinal effects of a reform, and we won’t see results until a two-term President Obama is joining the exclusive ex-President’s club.
Those three or four years are an eternity for public education.  That’s a generation of kids who could end up missing out.  That can mean an entire middle or high school experience.  That means three or four more cohorts at a drop-out factory.  That means another elementary school where 40 percent of kids can’t read at grade proficiency by fourth grade.  That means new silver bullets and magic elixirs hitting the ed reform market before RttT.  That means a lot of waiting for what is needed right now.
Across the nation, we have state legislatures and governor’s offices that are making policy and budget decisions based on a scenario where RttT money comes in and saves the day.  At the state level, that money in 2010 can be of immediate help for issues like data systems and accountability measures, building on what is currently in place or putting in place what is desperately needed.  But what about those other two pillars of the plan — teacher quality and school turnaround?  If we look at the timeline, we are talking years before those dollars are ever received by school districts or individual schools.  We may even be talking about ESEA being reauthorized before those local checks are cut.  From past experience, a lot can happen between draft regs and final payment.

193 thoughts on “Setting a Start Time for the Race

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