State loses grant bid

SEATTLE - Washington state is not one of 19 finalists in the latest and perhaps last distribution of money in the federal Race to the Top education grant competition.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the finalists Tuesday morning. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia are left with a chance to win a share of $3.4 billion.

Washington leaders were seeking $250 million to use for higher academic standards, more preschool education and an emphasis on science and math. The majority of Washington school districts, including most in the South Sound, had endorsed the effort.

State officials said Tuesday that they would continue down the path they have laid out for education reform.

“When we put together our application, we were committed, win or lose, to making sure we would carry out education reform our way, the Washington way,” Gov. Chris Gregoire and Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn said in a joint statement.

South Sound education observers said there were several factors holding Washington back.

The state was late to the game with some reforms favored by the federal government, such as stricter teacher evaluations. Others – like charter schools – are nonexistent, they said.

While Washington is piloting new teacher evaluation systems in several districts around the state, there’s not yet a statewide system in place.

Dorn said in a telephone interview that he believed Washington was not chosen as a finalist because its application did not include a plan for allowing charter schools in the state.

Washington voters have rejected charter schools two times, and Dorn and the governor thought a third fight would waste valuable reform time. Dorn said the diverse group putting together the state’s application made a decision early on to do what is best for Washington.

Expanding the use of charter schools was just one way to gain points on a Race to the Top application – 40 points out of a possible 500 total – but every finalist except Kentucky had added or expanded charter schools before turning in their application, Dorn noted.

The competition was designed to reward ambitious reforms aimed at improving struggling schools and closing the achievement gap. Washington’s application included new teacher and principal evaluations; a focus on science, math and technology, and a new school accountability system to force struggling schools to make dramatic reforms.

“There are some things that will still move. It just won’t move as fast with the resources not there,” Dorn said.

Mary Lindquist, the president of Washington’s largest teachers union, said her group “did not approve of the underlying competitive nature” of the process.

“While state governments are forced to cut deeply into education spending, pitting one state, one district or one school against another is the wrong approach,” she said.

But Lindquist said the effort had one positive result: fruitful collaboration between the governor, the Legislature, parents, other education advocacy groups, local school districts and the Washington Education Association, representing teachers.

“The application process itself proves that we can and will continue to work together to continuously improve public education across Washington,” Lindquist said.

The finalist states are Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Carolina.

Two states, Tennessee and Delaware, were awarded a total of $600 million in the first round of the competition.

Staff writer Debbie Cafazzo contributed to this report.