WASHINGTON–The Obama Administration has re-jiggered its controversial Race to the Top program, hoping to unleash a new wave of education reform at the local level by dangling federal grants in front of individual school districts.

The White House has requested $900 million for a third Race to the Top competition in fiscal year 2012. Unlike the first two rounds, this time federal education officials would give out the grants to school districts, not state education agencies.

Whether this shift gives Connecticut public schools a fresh advantage or a new handicap depends on who you ask. In the previous rounds, Connecticut twice failed to win the federal competition, despite enacting sweeping reforms after the first loss to make the state’s application more attractive.

Gov. Dannel Malloy has signaled a strong desire to try again. And in his recent budget address, the governor outlined further education reforms that may strengthen the states chances in a new contest.

But some members of Connecticut’s congressional delegation have expressed serious concerns about the Race to the Program in general, and this new iteration in particular.

“I think it would be a nightmare,” Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said of the reshaped Race to the Top proposal.

Courtney noted that unlike many other states, Connecticut does not have large county-wide school districts, but rather 160 local education agencies.

“To expect a school superintendent a small community to try and first of all deal with their own local budgets and schools, and now have an additional burden of applying for federal competitive grants by themselves, is just completely unworkable,” Courtney said. “Even large districts, like the city of Hartford for example, is just almost in a crisis mode every given day. And to now say they have to be the entity that interacts with the federal Department of Education is a mission impossible.”

Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, echoed those concerns.

“Fairfax [County], Virginia’s school district has more students than the whole state of Connecticut,” he said. “So just from the perspective of having the capacity–the people on staff–they’re going to be at an advantage over some of the very small districts, where the only central office staff is the superintendent.”

He said in the Wallingford district, for example, where he used to be superintendent, there is no one whose job title is “grant writer,” whereas other larger districts have full-time staff dedicated to that task.

A spokeswoman for Malloy, Colleen Flanagan, said the governor was undeterred by any new complications.

“Gov. Malloy will aggressively pursue this new grant money,” she said.  “That we have 169 cities and towns presents us with something of a unique challenge, but it’s the reality we face.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the change to a district-level competition was crafted, in part, as a way to get around Republican governors who refused to apply for Race to the Top funds because of ideological or other objections.

“There are fantastic districts out there that didn’t have a chance to participate,” Duncan said at a briefing with regional reporters last week. Pointing to Texas, in particular, Duncan said: “There are places, including Houston, that are really innovative and doing some good things [but] who couldn’t play.”

He said in this new version of the competition, there would be a rural set aside to help smaller districts. He said no decisions have been made yet about how much would be channeled to rural areas, or how a “rural” district would be defined.

Asked how states like Connecticut that don’t have a county-wide system might fare, he said federal officials weren’t looking for a “fancy power-point presentation” done by a sophisticated team of grant writers.

“What we’re looking for is three things–a commitment to do things differently, the courage to do things differently, and very importantly, the capacity” to do things differently.

Duncan held out the example of Delaware, another small state, which he said won a Race to the Top grant more on passion and commitment to reform than with a glitzy application.

The state’s education players “came in with an extraordinary reform plan,” Duncan said. “We looked a bunch of people in the eye, and we just had tremendous confidence in the leadership of that state–the governor, the state school chief officer and the head of the union–that they were going to move forward and move forward in ways that we just haven’t seen. So that’s what this is about.”

Duncan said he hopes that in taking the competition down to a more grass-roots level, there would be an additional benefit. “In this third round, my hope, my goal is that this huge flourishing of reform you’ve seen at the state level, we’ll now see at the district level,” he said.

To be sure, the Race to the Top program, first included in the 2009 stimulus bill, sparked a nationwide wave of school reform. Governors and state legislatures scrambled to enact new teacher evaluation systems and other measures in response to the Obama’s administration’s vision.

Alex Johnston, executive director of ConnCan, an education reform group, noted that Connecticut was among those states that responded with a much-needed education overhaul. And he’s thrilled the state will have a third, and possibly better, shot at competing.

“If this competition had been about districts last year, we probably would have had two that won,” he said. “Both Hartford and New Haven are way ahead of the curve nationally in district-level reform plans that are well aligned with priorities of Race to the Top.”

He said those districts may have been held back by the unsuccessful application submitted by Connecticut state officials last year. “I think frankly those districts were disappointed that the state couldn’t get it together,” he said. “They were looking for Race to the Top funding to accelerate their reform efforts.”

There are also many smaller districts around the state that that have “bold leadership and visionary plans for change,” Johnston added. “So we’re really shortchanging ourselves if we think that Connecticut can’t compete for something like this.”

Cirasuolo said that if several school districts were allowed to band together to apply in this third Race to the Top round, that could work well in Connecticut. He noted there are seven regional education service centers that could help smaller districts collaborate.

“They are a perfect agency for putting together 3 or 4 districts to write up an application that might have more of a chance,” he said.

Duncan said DOE was considering allowing such a move, but had not settled that or other details yet. Before DOE can work out such details, the White House still has to win congressional approval, and new money, for a fresh competition. And Duncan acknowledged that could be tough.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, the top Democrat on the House education spending committee, said she’s not convinced that Race to the Top is the best approach to improving American schools.

She said her concerns are less about what entity gets the grant money and more about a system that creates winners and losers. That could exacerbate the gap between well-performing schools and lower-performing ones.

“Successful schools will certainly benefit from more funding,” she said, “but schools that encounter difficulties will be punished instead of aided. They will not be able to compete with those that receive the extra funding.”

DeLauro also said she was concerned the program created a new “unfunded mandate,” by prompting reforms with the expectation, but no guarantee, of federal funding.

“Many of these states that were not chosen as winners in this competition have passed strong reform bills, which they will now have to find the resources to implement,” DeLauro said.

But DeLauro hedged when asked if her committee would block the Administration’s proposal, focusing her ire more at proposed GOP cuts to regular education funding than the White House’s new request.

Courtney, for his part, said he would “very strongly” oppose more funding for Race to the Top. He cited the case of New Jersey, which had its application eliminated because someone put the wrong date on the form, as a prime example of how “flawed” this approach was.

“To say that a kid is going to be damaged by an application that could be flawed for technical reasons, like New Jersey’s, or subjective flaws because the gut feeling wasn’t there, and the kid in the next town is going to get it, in my opinion, that’s not good public policy,” Courtney said. “Trying to visualize how that would play out across the country with small districts and even large districts… it shows really how the whole notion of competitive grants for the country administered in Washington is a flawed approach.”

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