Hoping to transform America’s public schools, the U.S. Department of Education is challenging states to design winning school reform plans in a competition for more than $4.3 billion in economic stimulus grants.
The competition, known as Race to the Top, is designed to promote innovative strategies, raise academic standards and encourage aggressive reforms, including the shakeup of failing schools and the use of student performance data in the evaluation of teachers and principals.
Some states have already rewritten education laws or adjusted policies to put themselves in a more favorable position to win the money, such as easing restrictions on charter schools or removing barriers to using test scores in teacher evaluations, for example.
To design their reform plans, states had to follow a complex and lengthy set of guidelines. The guidelines amount to a blueprint of the Obama administration’s education agenda, emphasizing strategies such as creating strong data systems to measure student progress, designing innovative early childhood programs, building a high-quality teaching force, and strengthening programs in mathematics, science, engineering and technology.
In Connecticut, the state Department of Education led the effort to submit a proposal in the competition, assisted by a committee including representatives of school boards, superintendents, teacher unions, principals and others. Some critics believe the state may be at a disadvantage because top political leaders, including the governor, have not been as aggressive as officials in other states in pursuing the money. In addition, Connecticut drew criticism last year from the U.S. Department of Education for using earlier stimulus money to plug holes in the state education budget instead of using it for innovative reforms.
Nevertheless, state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan, who is leading Connecticut’s effort, insists the state has a legitimate chance to win some of the federal money. Connecticut was one of several states that recently received grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to assist in preparing the Race to the Top application – an encouraging sign, McQuillan says.
The U.S. Department of Education will award Race to the Top grants in two rounds. The first awards will be announced in April, the second in September. Connecticut is eligible for an amount estimated to be between $60 million and $175 million.

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