Dallas ISD and Race to the Top: Everything You Need to Know* About That $40 Million

Arne Duncan, Mike Rawlings and Mike Miles.
Arne Duncan, Mike Rawlings and Mike Miles.

There has been a lot of ink devoted over the past few days to Dallas ISD being named a finalist for $40 million in federal Race to the Top funds, which built to a crescendo yesterday when Education Secretary Arne Duncan came to town.

That all sounds fantastic, but what does it mean? We decided to break it down in a format that was easier for us to understand. To the Fake FAQ Mobile!

So "Race to the Top," huh? Is that sort of like American Gladiators? Yes, in that both are competitions. No, in that American Gladiators was a critically acclaimed** early-90s television program -- briefly revived in 2008 -- that featured weekend warriors jousting with oversize, red, white, and blue Q-Tips. Race to the Top is a $4.35 billion federal program, funded through the 2009 stimulus, designed to spur education reform at the state and local level.

Wait ... Didn't Rick Perry ride in on his trusty steed to valiantly protect Texas sovereignty by rejecting Race to the Top funds? It was more of a transparent political move to out-right-wing Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison when she challenged him in the 2010 governor's race. But yes, he did make a big to-do of being one of two states to opt out of the up to $700 million available to the state through the competition.

"We would be foolish and irresponsible to place our children's future in the hands of unelected bureaucrats and special interest groups thousands of miles away in Washington, virtually eliminating parents' participation in their children's education," Perry said at the time. The elected bureaucrats/wing nuts at the State Board of Education don't need the federal government's help to pander to special interests.

DISD is still in Texas, right? Last time we checked. The reason the district is still in the running for the money is that the Obama administration structured the program in such a way that Republican governors hoping to score political points couldn't keep out all that dirty Race to the Top money. Perry's refusal only meant the state wouldn't compete for the first two phases of the competition, in which states competed against each other. Phase three was targeted to individual school districts and charters. Call it the Perry Clause.

So was Duncan's visit yesterday the Obama administration's way of like peeing on Rick Perry's neatly coiffed 'do? Wow. That's a mental image that's tough to shake, but not really. The two men have skirmished publicly since Perry refused to adopt national core curriculum standards in 2009, but Duncan's visit to L.G. Pinkston High School was much more about staging a photo opp than striking a blow against Perry, who has been mostly mum as districts in the state have applied for Race to the Top funds. Then again, Duncan is an Obama Administration official who set foot on Texas soil. So it's more like urinating on a tree across the street from the governor's mansion.

Wait, Duncan toured Pinkston? Doesn't DISD know that Townview Magnet is the one that always tops those best-high-schools lists? DISD is well aware of its success at Townview, but Race to the Top is heavily focused on turning around low-performing schools, and Pinkston is one of the lowest performing schools in the district. Plus, Pinkston is one of the primary focuses of DISD's Race to the Top application and has already been identified by Superintendent Mike Miles and community leaders as an incubator for the reforms he wants to bring to the district.

$40 million sounds like a lot of money. Is it all going to Jennifer Sprague's Christmas bonus? No. Sprague's name is not mentioned a single time in the district's 68-page application. Instead, the district plans to use the funds to accelerate the reforms he's already putting in place -- comprehensive teacher and principal evaluation systems, better utilization of technology in the classroom, improving recruitment and retention of qualified teachers -- thereby turning Destination 2020 into Destination 2016. In the Pinkston and Lincoln feeder patterns, those changes would be fully implemented by next school year.

Teachers must be thrilled. Not likely. When Perry announced his refusal to compete for Race to the Top funds, he found an unlikely ally in the state's largest teachers union, which viewed the program as a top-down way of coercing states to implement the types of reforms that would lead to a lot of unjustly fired teachers. And DISD's rank-and-file is already uncomfortable with Miles' initial reforms. Implementing them twice as quickly is unlikely to win teachers over.

So what are the chances that DISD will actually get the money? On the surface at least, they seem pretty strong. DISD is one of 61 finalists selected from over 400 applicants nationwide. Only 15 to 25 will actually get the money, but keep in mind that Miles and Duncan have something of a bromance going on. It was Duncan, after all, who suggested Miles when DISD searching for superintendent candidates. The men seem cut from the same ideological cloth with similar visions for education reform. Only time will tell, though, if DISD actually gets the money.

* Please don't tell us you need to know more. That would be embarrassing (for us). ** Google it.*** *** Please don't.

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