Massachusetts’s new education law suffered a setback this week when federal officials rejected the Patrick administration’s efforts to score more than $250 million in additional federal aid and put the state near the bottom of their list of finalists.
Only Delaware and Tennessee qualified for the first round of Race to the Top funding, receiving $100 million and $500 million, respectively. Massachusetts finished 13th out of 16 finalists, topping Colorado, New York and Washington D.C. States that finished ahead of Massachusetts included Georgia, Florida, Illinois, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Kentucky, Ohio, Louisiana and North Carolina.
In denying Massachusetts a higher ranking, U.S. education officials pointed to a lack of incentives for teachers to work in low-income schools or to ensure that teachers and principals “are assigned where they are most needed beyond staffing the absolutely failing schools.”
In addition, the federal evaluation faults Massachusetts for lacking comprehensive teacher evaluation processes, noting that only one-quarter of Bay State teachers were evaluated last year.
In a conference call with reporters, U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan said Tennessee and Delaware won awards, in part, because their education reform plans would reach all students.
“One hundred percent of students from both states will benefit from these programs,” he said.
The Legislature and the Patrick administration worked in recent months to update the state’s education laws, in part to secure federal funds. The Senate passed its overhaul last November and the House approved its bill in January, with the branches working to quickly agree to a consensus in order to meet a federal grant application deadline.
As the bill was working its way through the Legislature, Gov. Deval Patrick said the proposal would mainly benefit underperforming schools in urban districts, but would include provisions to encourage innovation in all Massachusetts schools. Provisions to expand charter school caps and affecting collective bargaining were primarily aimed at the worst-performing performing districts, rather than statewide.
“The charter cap lift came, but it came with a lot of red tape,” said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute. “[The federal government] wanted a pure charter cap lift.”
State officials are pinning their hopes on a second round of funding to be awarded in the fall.
“I’m as disappointed as anybody that we didn’t get it in this first round,” Secretary of Education Paul Reville told the News Service. “We’re fully committed to being in the winners’ circle the next time grants are awarded …We’ve got more homework to do.”
Lawmakers and the Patrick administration had been girding for the funds, part of a $4.3 billion pot the Obama administration dangled in front of states to incentivize efforts to boost poorly performing schools. The potential for $250 million infusion was regularly cited by proponents of the state’s education reform efforts. The Patrick administration maintained that the law changes were necessary, regardless of funding, to help close an achievement gap for poor and minority students.
The state plans to reapply for federal funds by June 1, and Reville said he expects a further funding announcement in September. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters on an afternoon conference call that between 10 and 15 states could win funding in the next round, although awards will be capped to ensure widespread disbursal.
Even with the cap, Massachusetts will be eligible for up to $250 million, according to federal education officials. California, Texas New York and Florida will be eligible for up to $700 million, while Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia, Muchigan, North Carolina and New Jersey will be eligible for up to $400 million. Other states would be capped between $75 million and $175 million.
Reville said $3.4 billion is still on the table for applicants. He expects detailed feedback from federal officials on why the state’s application didn’t merit funding in the first round of awards.
Sen. Robert O’Leary, co-chair of the Education Committee, said he doesn’t believe legislative fixes will be necessary to win funds in the next round.
“My instinct is, we’ve done the legislative work,” he said, adding that the next step would be “putting together the right policies.”
O’Leary said he anticipated as many as eight or nine states would’ve been chosen in the first round and was “a little surprised” that only two were picked. “We’re going to look hard at what those states have done that we didn’t do,” he said.
On the federal concerns about teacher evaluations, O’Leary said, “It’s linking teacher evaluation to educational goals. We’ve got to connect those two a little better.”
Boston schools chief Carol Johnson, who headed Tennessee’s Memphis school district before coming to Boston, said she is “proud of Tennessee” and believes Massachusetts is “well-positioned” to win in the next round.
“I think [Tennessee] really had a strong plan design around teaching and improving teaching and principal leadership and looking at human capital as a core strategy,” Johnson told the News Service. “Governor [Phil] Bredesen has done a great job.”
Johnson said she had hoped that Race to the Top dollars would have helped Boston “move forward on our aggressive acceleration agenda.”
Linda Noonan, executive director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, said Massachusetts was considered “very timid” in areas related to teacher evaluation, proposing pilot programs in places that other states had proposed wholesale changes.
“We have to translate our aspirations into hard measurable goals,” said Noonan, whose board includes executives from Liberty Mutual and Suffolk Construction Company. “If you look at the states that rank higher than us, they all did have very tangible, measurable goals. It was not just ‘we’re going to do better.’”
House Minority Leader Bradley Jones told the News Service he hoped provisions in the state’s new education law weren’t dependent on receiving federal grants.
“Does this bill become a drain on those existing resources?’ he wondered. “That, in it of itself, would present in my opinion, a huge problem for any number of office holders.”
Jones suggested that timing the second round of funding for September could be a political consideration, timed to arrive shortly before the November elections.
“While I am disappointed by the Race to the Top announcement, I am even more surprised that Massachusetts ranked so low on the list of eligible states,” Jones said in a statement. “In addition to passing a reform package, we were all led to believe that Governor Patrick’s close relationship with President Obama certainly would have helped secure at least a better ranking than 13 out of 16.”