Policy Documents

Delaware Races to Meet RTT Goals

Joel Pavelski –
June 24, 2011

(Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series analyzing the early results from Delaware and Tennessee, the two winners of last year’s Race to the Top federal grant competition. The next installment will focus on Tennessee.)

A skirmish between Delaware education officials and its largest school district illustrates the high-pressure expectations built into the Race to the Top (RTT), President Obama's $4.35 billion education grant program passed within the 2009 stimulus package.

Last September, Delaware officials chose Glasgow High School and Stubbs Elementary as two of the first four schools in the state's “Partnership Zone,” a new RTT program targeting the state's lowest-performing schools with financial assistance and aggressive, mandated reforms.

When the locals school board voted unanimously to stop a state plan to remove 19 teachers, the state threatened to withhold more than $11 million in RTT funds.

“Within 11 days we reversed ourselves because everyone and their brother came out swinging at us,” Christina School Board President John Young said. “This is a favorite tactic of the federal government: linking conditions to funding. It showed me the governor and Department of Education's true colors about being partners—they just wanted to force us onto what they considered the right track and were willing to do anything to do that.”

RTT's Policy Mandates
Two states received grants during the first phase of the competition—Delaware nabbed $119 million and Tennessee $501 million—while other states, like Texas and later South Carolina, chose not to apply, calling the program an increase of federal intrusion into state education policies.

“It's a disproportionate amount of work to account for that amount of funding,” Young said. “If my school has 11 to 13 percent federal funds, it might be accounting for 30 to 35 percent of our paperwork.”

RTT has clear policy mandates. By selecting Delaware and Tennessee as first-round picks, the federal government signaled that five things were critical to successful proposals: universal “buy-in” from state school districts, expanding data systems, adopting federally approved grade-by-grade learning goals like the Common Core Standards, state intervention in poorly performing schools, and an increased reliance on linking teaching evaluations with student gains to control teacher placement, advancement, and retention.

Both Delaware and Tennessee made these promises in their grant proposals. Now, almost a year and a half after the grants were awarded, both first-round winners are rushing to fulfill them.

Lofty Goals for Four-Year Reform
The state is a perfect Petri dish for the new federal emphases in education because of its size—it has only three counties—and cooperative districts. All of Delaware’s teachers unions and 19 school districts signed on to the plan, which netted a fraction of the state’s $1 billion annual education budget.

Delaware promised in its proposal that by 2014 more than half its students will become proficient or advanced on standardized tests (only 32 percent ranked proficient on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2009), the state will boost college enrollment by 11 percent to 70 percent, and will halve racial- and income-achievement gaps on standardized tests.

“This past year has been a planning year, and a lot of programs are going into effect this summer,” Delaware Department of Education spokeswoman Alison Kepner said.

New Data Programs, Restricted Funds
After sending the required 50 percent of RTT funds to school districts, the state government is dedicating 67 percent of the remainder (or $42.4 million) on data and development coaches and bonuses for high-achieving schools and for teacher training, recruitment, and retention.

“They set up a separate department within the Secretary of Education's office, gave it a fancy name and had 10 staff jobs created by this $100 million so they could have oversight,” said Andrew Dalnogare, a senior policy analyst at the Delaware-based free-market Caesar Rodney Institute. “Various administrators and principals clock in at $100,000 range salary-wise, and 19 separate administrators could save a lot of money.”

The DOE is still hashing details on how to evaluate student growth and add it into the administrative grading system. The state plans to make teacher and administrator evaluations public.

Young said that money going into data coaching, teacher recruitment and training, and paying bonuses for teachers to move to particular schools doesn’t necessarily translate into money getting into classrooms.

“A lot of this money is going into side doors and not front doors,” Young said. “I’m not seeing this money going towards buying things to help our classes stay the right size, or to develop effective leaders or better principals. If it makes teachers better, I guess you could say it's getting into the classroom that way. But still, you see a headline that says we’re supposed to get $119 million dollars and we can't buy textbooks.”

‘Partnership Zones’ and Federal Strings
Of the remaining funds, 9 percent ($5.9 million) is going towards heightened standards and testing, 11 percent ($7 million) on implementing the new data system, and 13 percent ($8.2 million) for state intervention in low-performing school districts.

That policy on school intervention has caused the most controversy, with the struggle between the state's largest school district and the state government claiming headlines across the state. Kepner said that six more “Partnership Zone” schools will be announced in August.

"Partnership Zone" schools must choose a turnaround model—closure, restarting as a charter, transformation (which requires the school to make governance and operational changes), and turnaround (which requires staffing changes, including removing 50 percent of the school's staff)—and develop plans for aggressive reform. They must also address portions of collective bargaining agreements that inhibit implementing the chosen model.

“It's June 17th and we still don't have a principal,” Young said. “But it's a hard sell. The Department of Education hasn't made this job alluring—we're not paying anymore and if you don't fix the school in two years we'll blow it up again.”

Joel Pavelski (joel.pavelski@gmail.com) is a freelance writer living in Wisconsin.