Massachusetts was one of 9 other states, along with the District of Columbia, announced as winners of the second round of the “Race to the Top” initiative, according to the Department of Education. As a resident of Berkshire County, in western Massachusetts, I can affirm that the news comes as a welcome respite for local educators, students, and parents alike. Pittsfield’s Public School district, comprising the most populated area in the region, has been facing a dire budget crisis which should see some relief when the award funds are dispersed.
The culmination of an ambitious federal program to award funding to states which demonstrate comprehensive plans to reform and improve education, “Race to the Top” is part of the Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Rather than distribute federal education money indiscriminately or based on scholastic test scores, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is heading a unique competition in which states are scored based on a range of criteria, from educator performance and recruitment to closing student achievement gaps.
In July, Pittsfield’s city council was forced to make the tough choice to increase local funding for schools in order to offset drastic losses in grants. Aside from road improvement and highway projects, much of the increase in the 2011 budget was intended to prevent potentially catastrophic cuts at local schools. Pittsfield mayor James Ruberto praised the new budget, saying “Our schools and kids have to be our top priority,” according to an article originally published in the Berkshire Eagle.
Residents concerned about the shaky future of education funding throughout the county will likely breathe a sigh of relief at the news that Massachusetts is a “Race to the Top” winner. The fact that the state’s score was highest out of all 10 winners is a point of pride, though the federal award, which is based on student population, will be limited to $250 million.
Massachusetts had already enacted ambitious legislation intended to help turn around under-performing schools and districts in order to raise achievement levels throughout the state. Signed by Governor Patrick in January, An Act Relative to the Achievement Gap is a reform bill that will empower officials to identify under-performing schools and implement turnaround plans. Under the terms of these plans, educators in under-performing schools may have to re-apply for their positions, and charter schools in under-performing districts will also see funding caps lifted.
According to the state’s round two “Race to the Top” application, Massachusetts would use the funds to focus on educator workforce development, ensuring academic competence and effective instruction, as well as securing and distributing appropriate resources to meet those goals. The lowest-performing schools would be specifically targeted with available resources. Finally, the state will continue to prepare students for college and careers, which are essentially the fundamental goals of any good public education system.