Speaking at an education reform convention in Los Angeles hosted by the New Schools Venture Fund, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced yesterday that he has hired that group's COO, Joanne Weiss, as the administrator of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund -- the segment of the stimulus package aimed at "scaling up" successful school reform efforts happening at the state level. To the delight of the pro-charter school, pro-merit pay crowd, Duncan has indicated that a special focus of the fund will be on developing merit pay models for teachers, as well as on teacher recruitment for high-need areas. Other priorities for the money include more rigorous academic standards for students, interventions for low-performing schools, and more effective educational data systems.
Weiss' appointment is significant because of her clear identification with one side in the "education wars" roiling the Democratic coalition. The New Schools Venture Fund is an organization that moves money from private sector philanthropists into public school education reform efforts. The group is a key ally of D.C. schools superintendent Michelle Rhee, whose proposal to use private funding to launch an ambitious teacher merit pay system has come under fire from teachers' unions and local community groups. In a bad economy, some education experts question whether this funding model is reliable or sustainable -- and whether "edu-preneurs" will have the patience necessary to commit to long-term projects in the frustrating world of urban public education.
Regardless of these broader politics at play, Weiss' direct experience in funding school reform efforts certainly augurs well for the Race to the Top Fund. As Eduwonk Andrew Rotherham has written, with the $4.35 billion representing a drop in the bucket of the massive economic stimulus package, there are concerns about how this money will be allocated and spent. According to my sources in Colorado, which is considered a leading contender for the funds, the DOE is planning on rewarding Race to the Top grants to projects in just 8 to 12 states. Applications for the fund are due at the end of summer, and the money won't be distributed until next year.