As a new facet of the Department of Education’s Race to the Top competition, the Obama Administration has announced that school districts can now compete for $400 million by designing personalized programs specific to their districts.
“We are inviting districts to show us how they can personalize education for a set of students in their schools,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in the statement. “We need to take classroom learning beyond a one-size-fits-all model and bring it into the 21st century.”
The competition is opened up to any school district that has at least 2,500 students and at least 40 percent of those students qualify for reduced or free lunches. The districts will have to propose a plan to personalize education, allowing students to advance at their own pace and explore their own interests. The districts are also required to devise plans that ensure that they can only advance in their individual program only after they have mastered skills.
“This aims squarely at the classroom and the all-important relation amongst teachers and their students,” Duncan said in a statement.
The new district-level contest, however, is drawing mixed reactions from educators and leaders around the country. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union, explained that districts are facing massive cuts to many different programs, and this may not be the answer.
“At first blush we’re encouraged to see the Race to the Top program moving to a 360-degree accountability system by including evaluations for schools boards and superintendents, not just teachers,” Weingarten said in a statement. “But the larger fact remains that across our country, school districts are cutting teachers, music, art and sports programs, health care services and other critical programs our children rely on. Our focus needs to be on restoring funding for those programs and services, not on additional competitive grant programs that don’t serve all children.”
Others feel that the by moving the contest to the local level, will lessen the impact due to the sheer number of districts competing.
“The federal government gets the best bang for its money when it deals at the state level,” Jack Jennings a former congressional education staffer said to The Huffington Post. “It's hard to bring about change school district by school district, especially in a state like California, which has almost 1,000 school districts.”
However, by opening the contest up to a local level, states that previously refused to compete, like Texas, now have districts competing. Additionally, the state of California may benefit, as it has previously lost out on funding from the last three rounds of the state competitions.
“By competing for Race to the Top funds, our city can help California on its quest to becoming a national leader in education once again and send a clear message to Washington that Sacramento wants to prepare its students not just to be in the game, but to win the game,” Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson said in a statement to The Huffington Post.
Each district will have until October to submit an application, where 15 to 20 districts will be awarded a four-year grant worth $15 million to $25 million in December.
Nancy Swanson is a writer for 360 Education Solutions