Council of Chief State School Officers
National Association of State Boards of Education
June 7, 2012
The Honorable Arne Duncan
U.S. Secretary of Education
400 Maryland Avenue SW
Washington, DC 20202
Re: Race to the Top District Competition, Draft Requirements and Criteria
Dear Mr. Secretary,
On behalf of the National Governors Association, the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Association of State Boards of Education, we thank you for the opportunity to submit comments to the draft requirements and criteria proposed under the Race to the Top District (RTT-D) Competition.
State officials appreciate the leadership you have shown on education innovation. In particular, we appreciate that the proposed RTT-D competition takes into consideration some of our concerns and ensures better participation and representation from rural districts across the country. However, as education leaders tasked with managing education policy and reform in the states, we do not support directing limited federal funds to a district-based competition driven by prescriptive priorities. While we believe state innovation should be the primary driver of competitive funding streams, we appreciate RTT-D’s focus on personalized learning as well as its competitive priority around resource allocation and integration, as these are areas in which states are already leading.
As you know, many states applied under previous iterations of Race to the Top (RTTT) competitions with proposed innovative reforms and have yet to receive awards. We contend there is still much work to be done at the state level and believe that any funds authorized by Congress for RTTT should be awarded to the states in order to ensure that comprehensive reforms impact every student. State leaders continue to be concerned that RTTT is creating a federal education system that disadvantages many states, schools, and students. RTTT needs to be refined and adjusted to better support cross state and territory collaboration, recognize differences in capacity of states and territories, and support the development of a learning network that will disseminate best-practices among all states and territories. States have the primary responsibility for educating their students and the Department should continue to partner with states as its main priority to ensure all students succeed in the classroom and become college-and-career-ready.
We expect many states to submit their own comments to the draft requirements and criteria. However, this submission is a reflection of the overarching recommendations of governors, state departments of education, and state boards of education.
We assert that the Department can improve this proposed competition in the following ways:
District Applications Must be Consistent with State Laws and Regulations
Final application materials must clearly require that district applications be consistent with and not contravene state law. While we do not believe that it is the Department’s intent to supersede state law through RTT-D, the absence of an express requirement leaves open the possibility that districts could propose programs that conflict with state laws or policies. Long-term sustainability of district innovations developed through RTT-D will depend upon coordination, collaboration, and partnerships between districts and states. State education leaders strongly believe that providing funding for isolated reforms across a small handful of districts without requiring coordination with their respective states will lead to efforts that are neither scalable nor sustainable.
We also recommend that the Department require each application to include the signature of the state attorney general and/or the district(s) legal counsel attesting to the absence of any legal conflicts with state law. The Department imposed a similar requirement upon states during previous iterations of RTTT and is merited here to ensure compliance with applicable state laws.
Promote State and Local Partnerships
State education leaders appreciate that the RTT-D competition contemplates an opportunity for states to comment on their district applications. However, the limited comment window of five business days is a substantial barrier to a thorough, comprehensive state review of these applications, particularly when a single state may have multiple district applications. Individual states also have laws governing open meetings, freedom of information, and public comment to ensure full public participation and disclosure of the processes by which officials make decisions. These laws set specific timeframes that may exceed the five day requirement proposed in the draft criteria. We request that states receive a minimum of 30 days to review district applications in order to provide substantive commentary.
Furthermore, it is unclear the extent to which states’ comments will be part of the formal peer review scoring. Within earlier iterations of the RTTT grant program, district support was a critical component of states’ applications. We believe that similar consideration must be applied to states’ commentaries and support of their district applications. Alternatively, the RTT-D scoring system must strongly favor district applications that are endorsed by their respective states or completed in collaboration with their respective state departments of education. We strongly believe that the sustainability and benefits of district applications rely heavily upon state support and coordination.
RTT-D Should Align with State Efforts to Implement Other Federal Grant Programs and Initiatives
States are currently implementing a variety of federal grant programs including RTT and School Improvement Grants, as well as Elementary and Secondary Education Act waivers. States have worked carefully to ensure that the various performance measures and protocols required under these programs are aligned throughout the state and local level. To ensure that RTT-D does not frustrate the purposes and intended outcomes of these other policies, we believe that RTT-D must ensure that district applications do not establish requirements or performance measures in conflict with state efforts to implement existing federal programs. Additionally, we also recommend that within the proposed competitive priority around resource allocation, submitted applications should be required to demonstrate how they will leverage resources received under other grant programs and also align relevant program requirements.
RTT-D Must Not Pose Additional Requirements Upon States
RTT-D does not provide state education agencies (SEAs) with funds to provide additional support, technical assistance, monitoring or evaluation of districts being served by the grant competition. We seek express clarification that RTT-D does not require SEAs to provide such services.
RTT-D Should Ensure Rural Participation
Many small, rural, and frontier states were shut out of previous rounds of RTTT competitions. In fact, of the 29 states with populations of less than five million, only three were awarded funding in any round of RTTT. We seek an express guarantee that the department will fund quality applications within each of the proposed four Absolute Priority categories. As you are aware, 70% of districts in the country have fewer than 2,500 students. According to the Why Rural Matters 2011-2012 released by the Rural School and Community Trust, nearly 10 million public school students attend school in rural school districts. While we acknowledge the ability of districts to join consortia in order to apply for RTT-D, we still believe smaller districts will face a tremendous burden in dedicating staff time and resources to collaborate on applications. We strongly suggest that the Department develop a comprehensive plan and strategy to provide additional technical assistance to small, rural districts or consortia that include districts below the 2,500 student threshold.
Education Service Agencies and Districts Should Be Eligible to Apply with State Consent
We appreciate that any entity formally designated as a district will be eligible to apply under this competition. However, not every state formally recognizes Education Service Agencies or Departments as districts. We suggest that within states that lack such formal declarations, those entities be allowed to apply if they partner with districts and have the expressed consent from their state departments of education.
RTT-D Should be Open to All Territories
The U.S. territories of Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands were excluded from participating in the first three rounds of RTTT. We interpret the Fiscal Year 2012 Appropriations law (P.L. 112-74) to allow U.S. territories to compete in the RTT-D competition through a provision granting the U.S. Department of Education the authority to award funds to states, local education agencies (LEAs), or states and LEAs jointly.
Under the Race to the Top statute, LEAs are defined according to Section 9101 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (20 U.S.C. 7801), which provides that the term LEA “includes the State educational agency in a State in which the State educational agency is the sole educational agency for all public schools.” As you are aware, the U.S. territories are considered states for the purposes of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Further, the U.S. territories act as sole educational agencies for their respective public schools, consistent with the definition of an LEA. We urge the Department to use its vested statutory authority to ensure that all U.S. territories have the opportunity to compete in the RTTT program for the sake of fairness and equity.
Dan Crippen, Executive Director
Gene Wilhoit, Executive Director