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VOL. 125 | NO. 61 | Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Race to Top Funding Awarded to Tennessee

By Bill Dries

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Memphis schools could benefit from the latest grant funding to come Tennessee’s way. The state was awarded federal Race to the Top funding from Washington this week. That’s in addition to $90 million private funding Memphis schools got last year from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  Photo: Lance Murphey

Tennessee always had an inside track on winning a share of federal Race to the Top funding.

The $500 million application from the state and a similar application from Delaware were chosen in the opening round of the grant program, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

The funding over four years comes from a pool of $4.35 billion that 40 of the 50 state governments have applied to receive.

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration formally sought $500 million in funding after a weeklong special legislative session in January.

The state already had an advantage in the competition because U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan had been involved in the Legislature’s 2009 debate on raising the state cap on its number of charter schools from 50 to 90.

Duncan, a former leader of the Chicago public school system, had said states with a charter school cap would probably be at a disadvantage in the competition.

The Tennessee Legislature had initially rejected lifting the cap. The move to raise the number stalled in committee during the 2009 session and the committee adjourned for the year that May.

With Duncan working the phones, the bill was revived in June just before the full Legislature was to adjourn. It passed after a noisy debate that paved the way for a much smoother 2010 special legislative session.

The special session finished up work on other requirements for the federal funding that were marginally less controversial.

The requirements included allowing the state and school systems to use the rich pool of teacher testing and evaluation data – TVAAS (Teacher Value Added Assessment System) – to make decisions about which teachers should be granted tenure after three years.

Prior to the special session, state law specifically prohibited the use of the data in those decisions.

Education reformers on the national level regard the 18 years of TVAAS data as the richest source of teacher evaluation data in the country.

As he prepared for the special session, Bredesen told a Memphis audience in December that the new data-specific evaluation of teachers “has been a third rail of education for a long time.”

The charter schools have had a similar effect on the political discussion of education reform.

Memphis City Schools officials announced this month that they may consider cutting funding to charter schools if the city does not come up with $50 million two courts have ordered it to pay.

The court-ordered funding stems from a 2008 decision by the City Council to cut funding to the school system. It prompted a court fight that continues on appeal over the question of whether city government is required to fund the school system.

The Race to the Top funding is the second infusion of funding for education reform to find its way to Tennessee. Memphis City Schools was awarded $90 million over six to seven years in November from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation of Seattle.

There is some overlap in the reform efforts.

The Memphis school system’s agreement with the Gates Foundation included a separate local agreement in which the Memphis Education Association agreed to let the school system use the TVAAS data as part of local evaluations of teachers.

The Race to the Top effort gave points to states that had such memoranda of understanding with teacher unions.

The Gates Foundation funding is focused exclusively on reforms in teacher hiring, evaluation and retention.

Race to the Top includes that in its four central goals.

The other goals include preparing students for college and the work force, building a comprehensive data system to track student achievement from year to year and turning around the lowest performing schools.

Half of the Race to the Top funding goes to state government to award to local school systems as competitive grants for locally based reform efforts. The other half is available to local school systems that agree to participate in a state reform effort.

No more than 10 states were expected to win the federal grants, which include a second round of applications to be awarded in September.

That’s about the time the federal funding should begin to flow into Tennessee.

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