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Originally published November 13, 2009 at 12:11 AM | Page modified November 13, 2009 at 6:50 PM

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Washington in race for federal education funds

Washington leaders are working to become more competitive in winning a share of $4.35 billion in education grants through an Obama Administration program called Race to the Top. Some think the state's chances are, at best, a longshot.

Seattle Times education reporter

Race to the Top

For more information, on Race to the Top, see:

www.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/index.html

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As Gov. Chris Gregoire stood in a Renton middle-school library Tuesday to talk about Washington's bid to win a fierce national competition for billions of dollars in education grants, she recalled a recent heart-to-heart talk with the feds about charter schools.

Gregoire told U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that, while Washington does not have charter schools, the state does have many schools that are every bit as innovative and successful.

That appeal was one of a number of ways the governor is trying to shore up Washington's application for the federal Race to the Top program, in which the federal government will award a total of $4.35 billion to states willing to make bold changes aimed at dramatically improving U.S. education.

Duncan has called the program the educational equivalent of putting a man on the moon — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that involves more money than the U.S. Department of Education has spent on education reform in the past 29 years combined.

"We want people to understand that it's possible to dramatically increase the outcomes for students," Duncan said. "We want to reward those states and districts that ... have the courage and the political will to do that."

It's not clear whether Gregoire's appeal worked. Duncan said Thursday that Washington's lack of charter schools certainly won't help its chances to become one of a dozen or so states to win between $20 million and $700 million each, depending on their size.

Most observers agree that Washington's chances are very slim unless it makes big changes quickly.

"We're starting way behind more reform-oriented, innovative states," said Stephen Mullin, of the Washington Roundtable, who has been involved in state education issues for more than 20 years.

Bringing in charter schools is out of the question, most observers say. With strong opposition from the state teachers union, voters here have rejected three attempts to open Washington's doors to such schools, a kind of public-private hybrid freed from many regulations.

But that's not the state's biggest problem.

Charters, although desired by the federal program, aren't a requirement to compete. But to qualify, states must be able to compel failing schools to improve, and that's not allowed under Washington state law. The state has a voluntary school-improvement program, but not a mandatory one.

Washington also would have to develop a system that identifies and rewards effective teachers and principals, and evaluates their performance in part on how much students improve.

Both changes have been debated before — and both are opposed by the state's teachers union, and sometimes by other groups as well.

The state's professional group for school administrators, for example, has doubts about the value of performance pay as the Obama administration envisions it.

"The people in Washington state and the people who are working in the schools in this state know better what our students need than anybody in Washington, D.C.," said Barbara Mertens, the organization's assistant executive director.

The Obama administration announced the Race to the Top competition last February. Applications for the first round of grants are due in 60 days, and the second round in the spring.

Few think Washington will be successful in Round 1, but Gregoire wants to apply anyway, and use the feedback to strengthen the state's application for Round 2.

Though some critics question whether the federal government should force its agenda on states, most states nonetheless seem to be working hard to win.

Wisconsin recently repealed a law that prohibited the use of student data to evaluate teachers, and California called a special session to do the same.

Other states have lifted caps on the number of charter schools they allow.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave $250,000 each to 15 states to help them prepare their applications — and caught flak from other states that wanted the same help. It now is offering $250,000 to any state that meets its criteria. (Washington received one of those grants, although it's not clear whether the state met the criteria or received it because the foundation's headquarters is located here.)

State has strong points

Despite the hurdles it faces, Washington does have some strengths to highlight.

In the past legislative session, lawmakers passed a bill to overhaul how the state funds its public schools, which included many of the same ideas the Obama administration is promoting, such as working to ensure all students graduate ready to go to college if they wish.

It also is further along than many states with the kind of data systems that Duncan has said he wants to see. Gregoire also said Duncan was impressed that Washington pays $5,000 bonuses to teachers who successfully complete the rigorous National Board Certification program.

That's one way to reward teachers that the teachers union here supports.

Gregoire said Tuesday that she's been talking with teachers union president Mary Lindquist and with Randy Dorn, the state's top education official, about a legislative package for the upcoming session that starts in January.

Lindquist and Dorn accompanied Gregoire on her tour of Renton's Dimmitt Middle School and two other schools Tuesday — examples of the kind of schools that Gregoire said exemplify the spirit of what the Obama administration is seeking.

The three officials met for four hours last Saturday, and Gregoire said they made great progress coming to some conceptual agreements that Gregoire said she wasn't yet ready to discuss.

But even if an agreement is reached, it remains to be seen whether the Legislature would go along, and whether the agreement would be bold enough to catch Duncan's attention.

"I don't think you can put a package together that's going to get the approval of the state teachers union, and at the same time be viewed positively by the Obama administration," said Mullin of the Washington Roundtable.

But Mullin also said he would be happy to be proved wrong.

With the Legislature facing another round of painful budget cuts, State Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said his colleagues might be more willing than in the past to consider some of the more-controversial changes that would strengthen the state's application.

"I would dearly love to have that money," he said, "because next year's budget isn't looking good."

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or lshaw@seattletimes.com

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