Wisconsin loses ‘Race to the Top’ funds

After a month and a half of waiting on the U.S. Department of Education to sift through 41 Race to the Top grant applications, Wisconsin learned last week it will not be considered in the first round of fund distribution.

The federal grant program will award a total of $4.35 billion to qualifying states through a two round application process. Winners will use the money to expand education reform efforts, establish electronic databases for tracking student achievement and improve low-performing schools, according to the Department of Education.

The applications from 15 states plus the District of Columbia were selected as finalists in the first round. Panels of peer reviewers scored the applications, which described past reform efforts and future plans.

Wisconsin requested a maximum of $254 million in its application, which included strategies that would focus on early childhood education, address the achievement drop-off between middle school and high school, and develop high-quality teachers and principals.

Gov. Jim Doyle expressed his disappointment with the Department of Education’s decision, and said the inability to put Milwaukee’s mayor in charge of Milwaukee Public Schools was one of the reasons Wisconsin’s application was rejected.

“The train is leaving the station,” Doyle said in a statement. “But because the Milwaukee School Board continues to cling to the status quo – and because the state Legislature has so far failed to make real reforms – Wisconsin is not on that train.”

Mayor Tom Barrett, who is also running for governor, echoed Doyle’s sentiments during an interview with Mike Gousha at Marquette’s Sensenbrenner Hall March 4.

Barrett said the federal government made it clear what it was looking for in Race to the Top applications, but resistance in MPS and the state Legislature to the mayoral takeover proposal hurt the state’s application.

Some of the states selected as finalists, such as Massachusetts, Illinois and New York, have “deep mayoral involvement” in the schools of those states’ largest cities, Barrett said.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers said in a statement that the state plans to enter the second round of applications for Race to the Top. That application will have to address “the readiness of Milwaukee to embrace reform,” he said.

Others in Madison aren’t so sure that the failure of mayoral takeover in Milwaukee doomed Wisconsin’s bid for Race to the Top dollars.

State Representative Brett Davis (R-Oregon) said he was not surprised by the funding rejection due to “watered down” reform bills passed by Democratic legislators that “flew in the face of the Race to the Top intentions.”

Representatives Tamara Grigsby (D-Milwaukee) and Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee), released a joint statement urging Wisconsin citizens and legislators not to panic because there will be a second round of applications to the program. They also stressed that a mayoral takeover of MPS is not necessary to attain federal funding.

“(The announcement) in no way lends credence to the desperate argument that the Legislature must approve a mayoral takeover of Milwaukee Public Schools,” Grigsby said.

Sinicki added, “No one supports the status quo, but mayoral takeovers just don’t work.”

First round finalists will present their cases to the panel that evaluated their initial application, and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will make the final decisions on first round winners.

No more than half the $4.35 billion will be awarded in the first round in order to promote quality competition in the second round, Duncan said in a statement.