Washington now in 'Race to the Top' for schools. But what are our chances?



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Posted on April 7, 2010 at 6:52 PM

Updated Thursday, Apr 8 at 4:41 PM

TUKWILA, Wash. - Foster High School in the Tukwila School District is said to be one of the most diverse in the nation, with students from a wide variety of races and backgrounds.

It was against this background in a freshman biology class where Governor Christine Gregoire says Washington State is now in the hunt for a share of the $250 million in the Obama administration's "Race to the Top" competition.

Washington did not compete in round one.

"The good news is that we have the opportunity for significant assistance from the federal government to get the job done," said Governor Gregoire.

But more than 40 other states did compete in the first phase and two states - Tennessee and Delaware - won that round. Now, all but Tennessee and Delaware can compete again, with a little practice this time, as Washington and a handful of others are now joining in.

But out of 47 contenders (Texas isn't playing), maybe the Department of Education awards another five to ten winners. In other words, all but a handful of states will fail the race, said Tom Halverson, a lecturer and senior researcher at the University of Washington's College of  Education.

"We're starting with a handicap," he said.

States compete against a 500-point scoring system set up by the Federal Department of Education. Delaware's winning score was 454.6. Already, Washington loses at 30 points because it has consistently turned thumbs down on charter schools - schools that while public are run almost privately, separate from the rest of a school district.

The Obama administration considered charter schools a central piece of Race to the Top. Halverson says charter schools are actually worth 40 points, but that Washington's pioneering Aviation High School and two other specialized schools  in Tacoma and the Tri-Cities may win back 10 of those points.

But Halverson says another big deal for the administration is teacher accountability, that other states including winning Tennessee have done.

"Which is really linking student performance data to teacher evaluation and teacher compensation," said Halverson. 

Randy Dorn, Washington's Superintendent of Public Instruction, says the state is moving in that direction, but that teachers and administrators have to work together.

"That's the first point, to improve them and get them up to speed. But if we don't have teachers carrying their weight, then improve them or go through the process. I think that's an element of it," he said.

The governor recently signed into law an education reform plan designed to help the state compete for this federal money. the application is due in June, but winners won't be announced until September.