WASHINGTON — Georgia will net $400 million during the next four years to invest in education reform as one of the winners of the Obama administration’s highly competitive Race to the Top contest.
Georgia, along with 10 other states and the District of Columbia will split more than $3.4 billion in grant money funded by the 2009 stimulus law. The Race to the Top competition, now in its second round, has sparked heightened national interest in education reform as financially strapped states facing funding shortfalls rush to implement a host of changes. Those changes include boosting the number of charter schools, increasing the use of data systems to track student performance and issuing more stringent teacher accountability regulations.
The competition, while credited for sparking prompt reform nationally, also has faced pushback from teachers unions whose members worry provisions for performance-based salary increases are unfairly linked to student test scores. Some lawmakers fear losing local control, and a handful of education advocates are concerned about cash-strapped school systems being pitted against one another.
“Going for Race to the Top has never been about just the money, but more about further development of our foundation to drive increased student achievement,” said state school Superintendent Brad Bryant. “But now that we have the additional resources, we can put an even greater focus on implementing that foundation for the benefit of Georgia’s students.”
While the Georgia Association of Educators still has concerns about how funds will be dispersed, the funding is greatly welcome, said Calvine Rollins, president of the 43,000-member organization.
“The process for obtaining (Race to the Top) money had the effect of pitting Georgia communities against one another with the ultimate outcome being some Georgia children benefitting at the expense of others,” Rollins said.
“We have no problem with Georgia competing with other states for funding, but (Race to the Top) led to Georgia school districts competing against one another at a time when funding is a major concern for all of our schools.”
Money to the midstate
In Georgia, 26 school systems, including Bibb, Jones, Peach and Pulaski will receive funding to boost student achievement through innovative programs. School systems have yet to find out all the regulations tied to the money or dollar awards. However, the funding cannot be used for school system operating expenses to shore up budget cuts, according to officials with the state and federal departments of education.
In December, Bibb reported that it hoped to get up to $6 million in Race to the Top funds for teacher incentives, a data system to measure student achievement and better training for teachers. Bibb’s acting superintendent, Sylvia McGee, said Tuesday the funding will help expand to all schools work already going on in four high schools to help transform them.
“It will probably expedite some of the things we’re already doing,” McGee said. “We were looking at schools and making changes, so we already had a plan.”
Rutland, Northeast and Southwest high schools, as well as Hutchings Career Center, are using federal school improvement grants to stretch their school days 30 minutes and reward teachers up to $750 when students show gains on test scores.
Jones County school system’s interim superintendent, William Mathews, said the money means opportunities for extended learning, paying teacher incentives and using technology.
“If someone wants to help give us money for Jones County schools, we’re going to get in line,” he said. “There are some innovative and exciting things we want to explore.”
Peach and Pulaski counties were added to Georgia’s Phase II application for the Race to the Top funds, along with north Georgia’s Dade County.
In Peach County, the Race to the Top money will fund endeavors such as the development of teacher evaluation tools and a student performance accountability system that links student growth to teacher performance, in conjunction with other systems across the state, Superintendent Susan Clark said in a written statement.
The system already is using school improvement grant funds at Peach County High School this year to establish three themed academies, boost technological resources and implement project-based learning.
“The focus in Peach County remains using these resources to provide our students with an excellent, second to none education that will enable them to successfully move forward after graduation from high school,” she said.
Systems should be receiving Race to the Top funds equal to their Title I allocations, said Clark, which amounts to $1.5 million for Peach County. That amount may vary, as school systems are able to apply for more funding on a competitive basis.
In Pulaski County, the funds will go toward professional learning, as well as teacher accountability assessments and evaluations, said Superintendent Janis Sparrow.
“We’re happy to be a part of it,” Sparrow said. “We intend to utilize it to improve student achievement most of all. We hope to have the effect intended, to close the achievement gap and move all kids up.”
‘The real race begins’
Georgia’s application included recommendations to strengthen preparation programs for teachers and leaders as well as performance-based salary increases for educators. The application also called for Georgia to adopt and implement common curricular standards and internationally benchmarked assessments that help indicate the state’s ability to compete globally.
The state Board of Education adopted these standards in July.
“While this has seemed more like a marathon at times, now the real race begins,” said Gov. Sonny Perdue. “This is truly a unique opportunity to implement a Georgia-created plan that will accelerate our work in improving student achievement.”
The highly spirited nature of Race to the Top meant that Georgia, which ranked third during the first round of competition behind Tennessee and Delaware, was bumped down to eighth place this time around. However, Georgia, along with many other applicants, was able to improve overall scores tremendously during this second round, according to Department of Education officials.
“This was Georgia’s plan. This was Georgia’s idea and Georgia’s hard work,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan. “This is bigger than any governor or any school chief. Hundreds and hundreds of individuals put in a huge amount of hours and came up with a great plan. This wasn’t about any one person. And we are holding every state accountable and will follow their progress.
“If any state does not implement well, we will simply stop funding them. If a state decides this is not what they want to do, we will challenge it. But I have every confidence that Georgia will do a great job and take student achievement to another level.”
However, some Georgia lawmakers and education advocates question whether the competition helps or hurts the state’s students.
Recently, former congressman and Republican gubernatorial candidate Nathan Deal criticized the program as having “strings attached” and said he would decline the money if awarded. John Barge, the GOP nominee for state school superintendent, expressed similar criticism.
Both have since said they will uphold programs, such as Race to the Top, that will already be in place should they be elected to office.
In the meantime, the state’s two Republican senators, Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, both applauded the state’s Race to the Top win Tuesday.
“I’m proud of Georgia’s teachers, principals, school officials and all those who were involved in working tirelessly to prepare an outstanding application,” Chambliss said.
“It is a testament to the quality of Georgia’s plan for improving education,” said Isakson, who is on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee.
Telegraph writers Andrea Castillo and Julie Hubbard contributed to this report.