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The race for education dollars is on

There's a race that began on Tuesday that I'm wondering if many people in Montana are aware of. It's a "Race To The Top" program that President Obama claims will revitalize and reinvent our education system.

Unfortunately, there are more questions than there are answers at this point, which is why Montana had its school districts, so far, opting out of the competition. What that means is Montana may not be "competing" for parts of a $4.35 billion pie that the Obama administration hopes to have funded by the Congress in 2011. 

The Race To The Top Fund is a $4.35 billion competitive grant program designed to encourage and reward states that are creating the conditions for education innovation and reform, achieving significant improvement in student outcomes, and implementing ambitious plans in four core education reform areas. Those areas include: 

• tough academic standards;

• recruiting and keeping effective teachers;

• tracking student performance with refined data collection methods; and

• turning around the lowest performing schools.

It's an interesting incentive-based program that dangles federal funds like a carrot on the end of a stick. But, it's one gigantic carrot. 

Though the program was proposed at part of the stimulus programs announced in the summer of 2009, some states, including Montana, are saying they'd like to see more details before agreeing to requirements of the grants. 

States with so many small rural schools especially are concerned they may not be able to comply with the requirements of the new grants. To be eligible for these dollars, states must meet a number of requirements, including allowing more charter schools, submitting plans to improve their worst-performing schools and committing to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores.

The Obama administration views this program as a way to get states on a common plan with common goals. Not surprisingly, states are addicted to the federal money but states like Montana are hesitant to give up control of testing, teacher evaluations and decision-making on charter schools.

This isn't a new way of ramming a new, progressive program down the throats of states. The 55 mph speed limit is a good example of how withholding federal dollars from states that don't comply is a powerful tool. 

The question, however, is whether it's the right thing to do. Just as the Bush administration and Congress rammed No Child Left Behind down our schools' throats, this program has the same effect of withholding needed funds from states that don't comply with Washington's edict. The only difference is the Race To The Top is being touted as a voluntary grant program.

States and school districts that don't apply are merely left to fend for themselves as federal education budgets will inevitably be pared down to pay for such "voluntary" incentive programs.

While others race to the federal trough, school districts in Montana are being left in the blocks.

Maybe what we need is a simple restart of the race, without booting anybody off the track.

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