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New education reform criteria puts N.D. at a disadvantage

North Dakota would probably rate high on a list of criteria for a $4.35 billion federal education reform competition, but one program guideline could put the state at a disadvantage.

North Dakota would probably rate high on a list of criteria for a $4.35 billion federal education reform competition, but one program guideline could put the state at a disadvantage.

The Race to the Top program is a competitive grant process that will reward the top education reform states that would use the funding to continue their school improvement. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told reporters in a conference call that the competition would enable every state to make its case for getting some of the money.

"We'll design this in a way that both big city and rural schools can compete and win," he said.

But State Superintendent Wayne Sanstead said the program's criteria could be a problem for North Dakota and the 10 other mostly Midwestern states that don't have charter school laws on the books.

"That's a part that bothers us," he said. "It bothered us the minute we saw back in August the proposed requirements."

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Charter schools teach K-12 students and receive public money but are attended by choice and often are formed to produce higher educational results. Sanstead said that's hard to do in a state with many isolated school districts that couldn't efficiently fund both charter and public schools.

National officials have told him the state won't be penalized because of this, but he said it still will have an impact on the chances. "They say they're not going to dock you for that, but what they're going to do is not give you about 40 points," he said.

Sanstead said North Dakota would do pretty well with most of the application criteria because of past state efforts in adopting more rigorous standards, attracting and retaining effective teachers and using data to improve instruction.

But one guideline, the need to demonstrate and sustain education reform, could pose a problem. One section of the U.S. Department of Education description says states should be "expanding support for high-performing public charter schools."

He said this piece of the criteria could "well be a hurdle" to North Dakota, adding some research has shown charter schools aren't necessarily a more effective or efficient system.

Grand Forks Superintendent Larry Nybladh said the program's attempt to hold school districts accountable for their performance while providing federal funding would be "welcome relief" to local schools. But he said smaller states are "disadvantaged" by the charter school requirement.

"The aspects of requiring specific solutions that do not fit our environment are very concerning," he said.

Local impact

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Duncan said the program already has been successful in spurring progress and more state cooperation even though the first round of winners won't be announced until April.

He said the biggest concern people have is that it will be a "one-shot deal," but President Barack Obama is seeking an additional $1.35 billion to extend it into 2011 and create a competition for school districts.

Many details still need to be worked out, but Duncan said the competition will have a "very, very high bar" and no state should assume it will get funding.

"We'll just fund those that we think have the best chance of demonstrating to the country what is truly possible," he said.

The first round of competition drew applications from 40 states and the District of Columbia. The U.S. Department of Education's nonbinding recommendations show Minnesota and 15 other states of a similar size could receive $60 million to $175 million if they are selected.

But the Minnesota Department of Education announced it was asking for much more than that. It raised the state's request from $230 million to $330 million because of "overwhelming support" -- 300 school districts and 116 charter schools, which represent more than 93 percent of the state's students, signed on in agreement for the application.

North Dakota is one of the 15 smallest states that likely would receive $20 million to $75 million, if selected. The state didn't submit an application for the first round of competition but is preparing for the next round that starts in June, Sanstead said.

He said officials are developing a strategic plan that would make schools more transparent and accountable while also focusing on improving student achievement.

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"Then, we will move that forward whether or not we get the Race to the Top funds," Sanstead said. "We'll make that a part of the statewide effort to get the job done."

Johnson reports on local K-12 education. Reach him at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send e-mail to rjohnson@gfherald.com .

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