School districts decline federal money

April 3, 2012

Becky Vevea

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School districts across Illinois are turning away federal money tied to school reforms.

Two years ago, state education officials begged local districts to sign on to their Race to the Top plan. That plan pushes districts to change how teachers and principals are evaluated and gives them money to do it even faster than state law requires.

At one point, more than half of the districts said they’d take the money. Now, just 4 percent still want it.

State Board of Education spokeswoman Mary Fergus said that’s because Illinois did not get the half billion dollars it hoped for from the federal grant competition. Instead, it got roughly $43 million, half of which will be divided by participating districts. “There are some very tiny districts out there that may only get literally a few thousand dollars but are still in it,” Fergus said.

“There are some very tiny districts out there that may only get literally a few thousand dollars but are still in it."

Last week, 96 of the state’s 869 districts still showed interest, submitting formal grant requests to the state. But when state officials told each of those districts how much money they would get, more than 60 dropped out.

Hardy Murphy is superintendent of Evanston schools, one of hundreds of districts that choose to take more time to meet state mandates over the Race to the Top money. “We just felt like it was important for us to do things in a more steady pace, that we didn’t need to gin up in a hurry to get this done right now,” he said.

Evanston turned down more than $50,000, but most districts would have gotten less than $10,000. Schaumburg District 54 and Arlington Heights School District 25 are among a handful of suburban districts also turning away the money.

Chicago is the exception. It’s taking the federal money and will get at least $17 million. That’s because the formula for dividing the grant is based on each district’s number of students living in poverty.

Fergus said the sweeping changes brought on by Race to the Top will require time and resources, “We are at a key point in our education reform agenda … We are really at a point where we need the state support to continue to actually implement these laws that have been passed.”