Newark Set to Compete for More Race to the Top Money

John Mooney | May 23, 2012 | Education
New contest invites districts to vie for millions for ‘personalized learning’ programs

Race to the Top, the signature federal program funding education changes in more than 20 states, will next be directing its money to individual districts.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan yesterday announced a new contest for more than $400 million that will be made available for school systems, with Newark already saying it will apply.

Meanwhile, New Jersey’s own state education department is beginning to decide how it will distribute another $18.7 million in previously secured Race to the Top money to scores more districts.

The extension of the federal money into individual districts continues the push by the President Obama’s administration to press sometimes controversial reforms in schools, including increased student testing and stricter teacher accountability.

The newest contest announced yesterday would go to an estimated 20 middle- and low-income districts, each getting between $15 million and $25 million for what Duncan described as “personalized learning” programs.

How that was defined was still somewhat unclear, but Duncan said in a conference call with reporters that it would include programs aimed at reaching students at different levels, be it through tutoring programs, specialized classes or online programs.

“We’re being totally agnostic about this,” Duncan said. “We are not preferring one program or another. We just want results.”

Renee Harper, spokeswoman for the Newark public schools, said the district would be among those applying for the funds. Officials in other big city school systems including Los Angeles and Houston also said they would be applying for the funds.

Districts can also collaborate to file applications, with the criteria being that applicants must serve at least a total of 2,500 students, with 40 percent or more qualifying as low-income. The formal request for proposals is likely to be issued this summer, with decisions on the grants by fall.

Meanwhile, Newark already stands to gain more than $2 million in federal funds from New Jersey’s last Race to the Top award, received by the state in February in the third round of the federal program.

That money is steered more toward accountability measures that have made the Race to the Top program famous — and controversial. That money is being directed to specific areas, including development and use of new curriculum and assessments; teacher professional development in science, math and technology; and new teacher evaluation systems.

From more than 370 districts eligible for the funding, their proposals are now before the department for review. Decisions are expected this month, with districts eligible for a few hundred dollars in small districts like Alexandria and Delaware Township to highs of $1.27 million in Paterson and $2.04 million in Newark.