(Phillip Moyer/Nevada News Bureau) – Nevada is preparing to compete in round two of the federal Race to the Top grant program. Only two states that applied, Tennessee and Delaware, received funding from the first phase of the competition.
The program requires applicants to adopt a set of standards in English and math produced by the common core standards initiative in order to be eligible for the next round of assessment, and submit an application of proposed reforms that a group of reviewers will evaluate when deciding which states will receive funding.
According to Nevada Department of Education Superintendent Keith Rheault, Nevada has until August 8 to adopt these standards, though he expressed uncertainty as to whether Nevada could fully adopt them by the deadline.
To qualify for race to the top, legislators amended NRS 386.650 during the February special session to allow teachers to be evaluated by student performance. The amendment passed unanimously in the assembly, though five of the 21 state senators voted against it.
Two states, Alaska and Texas, have declined to accept the core standards required to qualify for the program. Texas governor Rick Perry said in a January 13 speech that he finds committing to the kinds of changes the federal government is looking for would not be worth the potential gain.
“This program is not a ‘Race to the Top,’ but a sprint to the middle where soaring costs and one-size-fits-all approaches will leave our children ill-equipped to compete in the global economy,” Perry said. “The funding in question is certainly tempting, but it is one-time money. The obligations we are being asked to undertake including things like adopting national standards and tests would be with us for years.”
What it takes
The federal government estimates that the application would take 600 staff-hours to complete before its June 1 deadline. DOE Deputy Superintendent Gloria Dopf, who is in charge of coordinating the writing process, says that the state is too knee-deep in the application process to make an accurate estimate, but she believes that the federal estimate is an “understatement.”
“I can just tell you it has been a very labor-intensive, and a very consuming effort, particularly if you’re committed to putting together a credible reform agenda,” she said.
Superintendent Rheault has been traveling to meet with parent groups and school district boards of trustees to help determine what should be put in the reform application, and Dopf says that about 165 people from school districts, higher education, the teachers association, and professional development centers have been working with the department of education to aid in writing the application. Four groups have been formed from DOE staff to analyze how Nevada can meet the four reform areas listed by Race to the Top, and a fifth group has been working on the optional science, technology, engineering and mathematics priority.
A governor-appointed task force meets to offer advice on the application from such perspectives as the business community, educators, parent groups, and higher education, and will provide further advice to the governor once the DOE transmits the completed application on May 24.
Is it a good idea?
While some Nevada officials acknowledge issues with the program, most agree that the state made the right decision to apply for the funding.
“I think there is a lot of commitment to doing this, and I think there really is not a downside to doing it,” said Assemblywoman Debbie Smith, D-Sparks. “We are ripe for some change, and trying some new things, and this gives us a great opportunity to explore that.”
Smith called moves such as those by Texas and Alaska “just a political response,” saying that states need to be more “open minded” about reform.
Assemblyman Ed Goedhart, R- Amargosa Valley, expressed unease at many aspects of the program, calling the program’s one-time funding “Cliff funding,” that could set up large budget holes in the future, leading to calls for increased taxes. However, Goedhart agreed that, if the funding is available, Nevada should apply for it.
“I don’t like the way DC does things, but if DC is going to put that money out there, we as a state should apply for those funds,” he said. “They’ve rigged the rules of the game. I may not like the rules of the game. I may not even like the game. But at the end of the day, guess what? If there’s money available that our kids can benefit from, then I think it’s important for all of us to reach out and try to grab our fair share of those funds.”
Goedhart also said he was pleased that the funding required teachers to be evaluated by student performance, though he worried that the way the amendment, which states that student performance “must not be used as the sole criterion” for evaluating teachers, is “watered down” in a way that may put Nevada at a disadvantage when applying for the federal funding.
Ray Bacon, executive director of the Nevada Manufacturer’s Association and member of the Education Reform Task Force appointed by Gov. Gibbons, expressed a sentiment similar to Goedhart’s.
“Am I totally comfortable with the way the federal government is driving it? No,” Bacon said. ” But I’ve never been totally comfortable with federal involvement in education completely, anyway.”
The Problem of Sustainability
A major concern with race to the top is the ability to sustain the programs put in place once the one-time funding dries up.
Race to the Top applications are graded on whether they provide the state with the means to build “strong statewide capacity to implement, scale up, and sustain proposed plans,”something that, in light of the recent education cuts, Rheault is not sure Nevada can do.
“I don’t even know if we’ll have funding next year to support the basics,” he said.
Bacon expressed the same concern. To counter this potential problem, he thinks Nevada would need to spend the money on setting up substantial changes to the educational system, rather than on day-to-day issues and staff salaries. Doing otherwise, he said, might bankrupt the state.
“If we spend most of the money putting the systems in place instead of spending it on people, I think we can go a long way,” he said. ” If we spend it all on short-term issues, then it will be money wasted, and we really won’t get much of anything out of it, except a big bill.”
Smith, however, was optimistic about Nevada’s ability to sustain new programs, saying if the programs Nevada develops through Race to the Top are successful, then there will be “more appetite to find the funding for those [programs] down the road.”
Chances for Success
Bacon has expressed concern that Nevada’s historically poor educational system (with below-average test scores in every subject for over a decade) might prevent it from consideration for the grant. Out of the sixteen finalists for the first round of Race to the Top, only Louisiana had a similarly low-ranking educational system. Louisiana finished the first round in 11th place, receiving no funding.
However, Bacon believes that Nevada may be able to win a federal grant if it manages to craft an application that stands out from the rest of the applicants.
“If our application doesn’t have things that make it stick out, I think that the odds are very high that we get shot down,” he said. “But because we’re so far down, if our application sticks out, I think it will tend to get people to say ‘let’s give these people a chance to get off the bottom of the barrel.'”
What if we fail?
Rheault says that applying for Race to the top would be beneficial, regardless of whether Nevada receives any money. The input that Nevada receives from employers while creating the application, he said, will allow Nevada to understand what the companies that will employ students in the future would prefer K-12 Education to look like.
Smith agrees, saying that, regardless of whether Nevada receives funding, the process of creating the application may help push further education reform.
“We still have a legislative session in less than a year, where I think we will be taking up many of those [education] issues,” Smith said. “I believe that any work done in this regard, and the research that is done, will give us the leg up when we go into the next legislative session.”