This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania is one of the 15 states and D.C. that were selected as finalists for a share of $4 billion in Race to the Top funding, and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman credits the Philadelphia teachers’ contract with helping the state make the cut.
The state now has a better chance to get up to $400 million in additional federal dollars, although Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that the first round of winners is likely to be small. Forty states and DC applied initially. The first round winners will be announced in April.
The finalists must now defend their application in person later this month before peer review panels that did the initial scoring. Each state can send five people.
"We are looking for courage, collaboration, and commitment," Duncan said during a phone call-in for reporters. "It’s very important that we make the final decisions not based on a piece of paper, but by looking people in the eye."
Ackerman pointed out that 76 low-performing schools, about half Pennsylvania’s total, that are targeted for the changes promoted by Race to the Top are in Philadelphia.
"I don’t think Pennsylvania would have been one of the finalists without the collaborative relationship with the PFT," she said in an interview. She also said the District’s Renaissance Schools initiative may have factored in the state’s success.
A key criterion for judging the RttT applications was evidence that unions were willing to sign on to the sort of reforms the federal government is seeking, including the ability to convert low-performing public schools to charters, turn them over the outside managers, or do an internal "transformation." All these options require that the principal and at least half the staff be replaced.
The contract agreed to by the District and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers last month allows for this kind of upheaval in what has been considered a breakthough from a union local characterized in the past as resisting "reform."
Both Ackerman and PFT President Jerry Jordan hailed Pennsylvania’s success in making the first cut.
"It’s certainly great news," Jordan said in a statement. Winning the funding "is vital to Philadelphia’s efforts to reduce class sizes, improve school climates, support teachers and staff, and implement proven programs." He added that the PFT "remains committed" to working with District and state leaders.
Both Ackerman and Jordan said they would like to be in the delegation that goes to Washington, DC to make the case before the reviewers in the next step in the process.
"I would want to go with Jerry Jordan, the two of us standing there together building our case," Ackerman said.
In a separate interview, Jordan said that "someone from Philly should be there. It’s one thing to talk about reform and collaboration, but if it’s not matched by action, it does nothing to help our students achieve and provide the teachers the support they need."
Gov. Rendell said the state’s the decision "is a direct reflection of not only the quality of reforms outlined in our application, but also the effectiveness of the reforms that Pennsylvania already has undertaken."
State Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak said he believed that the kind of reforms outlined in the application could result in 100,000 more students reaching proficiency in reading and math and 10,000 additional graduates a year.
In the state as a whole, 120 of the 501 districts signed on to the state’s application.
After the first round, states will have another chance to apply for a second round of funds later this year.
Duncan said that there was such a high number of finalists because the decision was made to approve all that scored at least 400 of the 500 possible points. There were 49 separate reviewers, whose identities are not known, but each person participated in more than one team that scored each application.
Once the final winners are announced, the scores and more detailed feedback will be made public.