Rex: SC on cutting edge of education changes

South Carolina's Superintendent of Education Jim Rex

South Carolina is a finalist in the competition for $4 billion in federal Race to the Top grants, the U.S. Department of Education announced today.

Fifteen states and the District of Columbia were named as finalists. The other states are: Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Tennessee.

Those 16 beat out 25 other states and earned the highest scores from the peer reviewers who rated states' commitments to improve teacher effectiveness, data systems, academic standards, and low-performing schools.

At stake is $4 billion from the economic stimulus package approved by Congress last year, not to mention bragging rights. South Carolina's application is for about $300 million. "Some people in South Carolina might be surprised that we're a finalist," said State Superintendent of Education Jim Rex in a news release sent out Thursday. "But nationally, our state is viewed as being on the cutting edge of making the changes that will make schools stronger.

"In a head-to-head competition with 41 other states, these independent judges found that South Carolina has the potential to be a school improvement leader in the 21st Century. It's ironic that at the same time, our General Assembly is discussing extraordinary budget cuts that could take us back to the 20th Century."

Rex yesterday spoke to legislators about his desire to use an increase in the state's cigarette tax to offset the need for teacher furloughs. The state education department is facing an additional 6% cut in funding, which returns state spending on basic classroom costs to 1995 levels.

Rex says South Carolina will end a five-person team to Washington the week of March 15 to make a presentation to the judges. They will adjust states' grades based on how they answer the judges' questions, then come up with a final score. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan hasn't decided how many states will win money in the first round, but he said there probably will be more losers than winners in the first round and that investments will be made in states that can be national leaders in reform.

Winners will be announced in April, and states that don't win can reapply June 1 for Round Two. Final awards will be given out in September.

Betsy Carpentier, the Deputy State Superintendent of Education who oversaw South Carolina's more than 1,200-page application, said today's announcement was in line with her predictions that the state would be a strong competitor.

State applications are being scored on a 500-point scale, with more than half of those points assigned to initiatives already in place. The remaining points are given to state's plans for the future.

Carpentier said South Carolina has a number of programs that should earn it points, such as a statewide system for evaluating teachers, high academic standards for students, a system to roll those out to teachers and a pilot project that links teacher effectiveness to their college alma mater. The state has a well-developed data system with extensive capabilities in terms of linking student performance to areas such as crime, health and social services, she said.

Carpentier said the biggest change the state would see, if it were to receive the money, would be a shift in the way the state defines an effective educator. Businesses have used performance measures for years, but schools haven't, she said.

Some federal money would be used to create a system that measures how much students grow in a year, she said. An effective teacher would be one who moves a student one grade level and a highly effective teacher would move students more than that, she said. Teachers would be evaluated on their students' performance, and training and pay would be based on that review.

Of the $4.35 billion in Race to the Top funds, the USDE will distribute approximately $4 billion directly to states to drive education reform and $350 million to consortia of states that compete in a separate competition to create new college and career-ready assessments. The assessment competition is still in the design phase.