Illinois school districts can compete for federal money

May 22, 2012

School districts all around the state can apply for up to $25 million from the federal government under the latest Race to the Top competition.

But first they have to agree to big changes—like personalized instruction for individual students and performance evaluations for everyone, including the superintendent and the school board.

Only about 75 of the state’s more than 800 districts are eligible to compete for a portion of the $400 million—roughly 30 districts are in the Chicagoland area.

That’s because, to apply, districts have to have a minimum of 2,500 students, 40 percent of whom must qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Eligible districts include those in Elgin, Evanston, Joliet, Aurora and Waukegan.

The superintendents of Evanston District 65 and DuPage District 88 said they’re interested in applying, but don’t know yet if they will. Districts can link up and apply as a group, as long as they still collectively meet the 40 percent low-income threshold. 

Previous rounds of Race to the Top awarded grants to states, rather than districts. Illinois tried three times and came up empty, but then was awarded $42 million last December.

U.S. Education secretary and former Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan said the local union president, superintendent and school board president all will have to sign off on a district’s application.

“Where folks are at each other’s throats, that’s probably not where we want to invest,” Duncan said during a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon.

CPS is eligible for the competition, and district leaders have said they would apply to a district-focused Race to the Top.

CPS and the Chicago Teachers Union are currently at loggerheads over a new contract and have exchanged heated rhetoric in the press lately.

The applications for the competition will likely be due in September or October, Duncan said.