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Published: Wednesday, 8/25/2010

Ohio wins $400M in school aid

BY JIM PROVANCE
BLADE COLUMBUS BUREAU CHIEF

COLUMBUS — Ohio on Tuesday succeeded on its second try for $400 million in federal bonus cash for its schools, becoming one of 10 winners nationwide and the only one in the Midwest in President Obama's controversial Race to the Top competition.

Among 538 Ohio school districts and charter schools that chose to participate, the award means an additional $10.8 million for Toledo Public Schools, $524,421 for Findlay, $414,303 for Fremont, $253,506 for Oregon, $179,354 for Maumee, and $100,000 for Perrysburg.

Many schools, however, opted not to participate, determining that longer-term costs of the required reforms would outweigh the short-term benefits of the one-time funding. They will receive nothing.

Among the bigger local dollar recipients were online charter schools that had been sponsored in Lucas County, including nearly $2.8 million for the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow and $1.6 million for the Ohio Virtual Academy.

Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia had applied for funding this time around, and Ohio was one of 19 that made the cut as finalists. Some states that had participated in the first round didn't come back for the second.

After awarding funds to just two states, Delaware and Tennessee, in the first round this year, the U.S. Department of Education approved 10 this time. Two of Ohio's neighbors, Pennsylvania and Kentucky, had been finalists but did not make the final cut. Michigan failed to qualify as a finalist.

Race to the Top is a $4.35 billion program that dangles a carrot before states for funding on top of previously approved federal subsidies and stimulus dollars. In exchange, participating states and schools had to agree to enact certain reforms, such as efforts to improve academic performance among African-American and rural students, training of teachers, assessments, data collection and analysis, and college preparedness.

“Every state that applied showed a tremendous amount of leadership and a bold commitment to education reform,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “The creativity and innovation in each of these applications is breathtaking. We set a high bar, and these states met the challenge.”

He said he has requested $1.35 billion more in the next federal budget for a third round of awards.

Gov. Ted Strickland had voiced confidence early this year that the education reforms that lawmakers approved more than a year ago as part of Ohio's two-year, $50 billion budget would make the state's first application successful. But Ohio was ultimately hurt by the lower percentage of local buy-in to the effort by school administrators and teacher unions.

This time around, the state boosted its participation to 538 school districts and charter schools that teach 60 percent, or nearly 1.1 million, of Ohio's 1.8 million school children. Participation commitments had to be signed by school superintendents, school board presidents, and union presidents.

“The fact is that when [the budget] passed, we put in place many of the reforms that were asked of us through the Race to the Top effort,” Mr. Strickland said Tuesday. “We were ahead of the game, so to speak. Many other states had to scramble to try to get legislation passed in order to be able to compete.”

Although the funds would be distributed over four years, the funding is a one-time award that would not be supported by future federal operational funding.

“Anytime I hear we're going to spend $400 million of new federal money, I ask two questions,” said Rep. Randy Gardner (R., Bowling Green).

“How can our nation afford it? Will the federal money actually make Ohio's state budget deficit bigger?”

Sylvania was among the local districts that decided the rewards wouldn't be worth the effort.

“We wouldn't be getting that much because we're a wealthy district, and the reporting requirements and all were tremendous,” said Nancy Crandell, Sylvania's director of communications. “It would pay for a teacher for a year, but what do you do at the end of that year?”

Leaders of some of the districts that were awarded the money said they were unsure Tuesday how it could be used.

Bob Vasquez, president of the Toledo Board of Education, said he hopes it can be used to cure some of the district's safety issues, such a rehiring bus drivers and other support staff.

But use of Race to the Top money — a centerpiece of President Obama's education reform policies — will have restrictions.

“Ohio learned just hours ago,” Mr. Vasquez said. “There are going to be strings attached to that. We'll have to wait and see what the experts tell us.”

Similarly, Perrysburg Superintendent Tom Hosler said it's a “details to follow” sort of situation.

He described Race to the Top as federal funds provided to schools with “strings attached to help with the reform process. I think our teachers are open to the idea of looking at different approaches to get the additional dollars into the classroom.”

Dollars will be devoted to improving the academic performance of students, not to bringing back teachers to the classroom, he said. The school board has cut about 50 positions to reduce expenses to pare a projected $3.1 million budget deficit for the 2010-11 academic year.

When Perrysburg agreed to participate in Race to the Top, “It wasn't spelled out that this is what you are signing up for,” Mr. Hosler said, but officials approached it with the idea that it could move the district forward, and if requirements didn't fit in with Perrysburg, the district could walk away.

No specific plan was submitted by Perrysburg schools, and there was no specific monetary amount requested, Mr. Hosler said.

The $400 million comes at a time when the state is facing a potential revenue shortfall of $8 billion in the next two-year budget that would take effect on July 1, 2011, raising the question of whether the state would be in a position to maintain funding for K-12 schools that is heavy on federal stimulus funding.

The Race to the Top funding is separate from the second round of stimulus aid of $361 million recently approved by Congress to help cash-strapped schools avoid teacher layoffs triggered by the continuing recession.

Staff writers Christopher D. Kirkpatrick, Janet Romaker, and Carl Ryan contributed to this report.



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