Ohio's inclusion in the new round of federal Race to the Top school funding is a heartening validation of our state's commitment to education reform. It may also be a matter of luck: New Jersey, which finished just behind Ohio for the last of 10 spots on the latest list, messed up its application.
Schools throughout Ohio and statewide reform plans will share $400 million over four years in grants awarded by the competitive program, which is the Obama Administration's major education initiative. Locally, Toledo Public Schools will get $10.8 million, and other area districts will collect bonuses that range from $100,000 to more than $500,000.
Recession-battered school districts need all the financial help they can get to keep their budgets in the black. But because Race to the Top awards are one-time-only funds - like the grants in the new federal stimulus package aimed at preventing layoffs of school employees - districts should resist the temptation to apply that money to continuing operations.
And Ohio's success in the current competition in no way relieves the next governor and General Assembly of their duty to continue to provide an adequate complement of school aid despite the state's budget problems. It would help if candidates who are campaigning for those offices would acknowledge the potential $8 billion hole in the next budget, and offer suggestions for addressing it.
Meanwhile, schools should use the Race to the Top money for its intended purpose: promoting educational innovation. Such initiatives include improving reading and math instruction; finding better ways to train, certify, and evaluate teachers and administrators; using new data tools to determine what students are learning; strengthening the role of principals; preparing students to succeed in college and careers, and making special efforts to elevate low-performing schools and disadvantaged students.
The federal program's promotion of charter schools is appropriate as a means of enhancing competition and choice, despite the resistance such schools often attract from districts and unions. Two of the largest recipients of Race to the Top grants in Lucas County are online charter schools.
Public or private charter schools are not a panacea. They must be monitored just as closely as traditional schools. But when they succeed, they provide an important option for parents and students that should be encouraged rather than obstructed.
After Ohio failed to qualify for the first round of Race to the Top funding, the state attracted more districts, charter schools, and unions to take part in the competition. To the extent that such broadened participation enhanced the state's prospects, Gov. Ted Strickland's administration deserves credit for its recruitment efforts.
Ohio is the only Midwest state so far to qualify for Race to the Top funding; Michigan did not make the second-round list of 19 finalists. Critics contend the program unfairly favors densely populated eastern states, trendy initiatives, and glitzy applications over rural states and more-basic practices. Such criticism seems to include an element of excuse-making by states that lost the competition or did not participate.
Ohio schools now have a splendid opportunity to use Washington's largesse to change and improve. Merely spending the money on business as usual would betray Race to the Top's goals, and the state's students.