120 districts competing for share of $400 million

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In Pennsylvania, 120 school districts and 59 charter schools have signed on to compete for up to $400 million in the Race to the Top competition.

Yesterday was the deadline for states to apply for a share of $4.35 billion in a competition that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said is likely to yield more losers than winners, at least in the first round.

"This is a very difficult competition. This is not a race to the middle," said Mr. Duncan during a news conference yesterday.

He said the department is looking for schools that challenge the status quo and have the capacity for parties to collaborate to improve educational quality.

He believes the presence of the competition has spurred innovation and progress before any money has even been awarded.

President Barack Obama yesterday announced he wants to see the initiative expanded and has asked Congress for an additional $1.35 billion to fund the program in fiscal 2011.

The maximum amount Pennsylvania could receive is $400 million. Winners of the first phase will be announced in April. Districts and charter schools then will have 90 days to develop a plan.

In a news release, Gov. Ed Rendell expressed optimism about Pennsylvania's chances.

"We have worked hard in recent years to increase the performance of our students, as well as boost the state's commitment to adequate education funding -- and we are getting results," he said.

State Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak said in a news release that the state has "crafted a strategy" that could double the number of students meeting proficiency targets for math and reading by 2014.

Combined, the participating schools enroll more than 650,00 students, more than a third of students statewide. The participating schools include 56 percent of all low-income students, 75 percent of all black students and 71 percent of all Hispanic students in the state.

School districts were required to submit memorandums of understanding signed by the superintendent, school board president and teachers union president. Charter schools also had to submit memos.

About one-fourth of school districts and nearly half of charter schools statewide signed the memos.

The participants had to agree they are willing to foster certain practices and meet student achievement targets. One controversial point was using data on student growth in teacher and principal evaluations.

The federal competition requires schools to adopt standards and assessments; build data systems and use them to improve instruction; foster effective teachers and principals; and turn around the lowest performing schools.

The state plans to use some of the money for developing tools and resources for all schools in the state, not just those participating.

Mr. Duncan said that the applications will be scored according to criteria already specified and that how each state scores will be made public. Those who don't win in the first round can apply to the second.

Twenty-three of the participating school districts statewide have at least one of their schools designated as a "turnaround school," which is a struggling school.

For those schools, the districts must commit to one of four strategies, such as replacing the principal or replacing the principal and half of the teachers.

The plan calls for turnaround schools to receive an additional $700 to $900 per student. State officials said that 128 persistently low-performing schools would share more than $120 million.

Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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