Behind the Article: Las Vegas’s Clark County and Race To The Top—District (RTTT-D)

In a press release masquerading as a news article, The Las Vegas Sun claims that the Clark County School District—the big one that covers Vegas—doesn’t want to apply for Race To The Top—District funds because they have “too many strings attached.” The strings aren’t that different from those that come with any very large grant program. And most of those strings are imaginary anyway.

Which means there’s something else going on.

The reporter, Paul Takahashi, writes, “There is also an expectation that school districts scale up these innovations after the Race to the Top pilot program ends, said Kimberly Wooden, chief student services officer.” Notice the weasel words: “There is also an expectation.” An expectation from who? How? In another choice quote, Takahashi writes:

“It’s a great idea, but in order to bring it to scale in a district our size, it may require technology,” Wooden said, adding there may be additional costs incurred to the School District to implement this technology.

Getting a grant that “may require technology”—whatever that means—sounds like a tremendous trial. This is the second example of weasel words I’ve quoted, and there are others.

It’s highly likely that there’s something else going on behind the scenes. Here are some possibilities:

  • The school district actually wants to apply, but it doesn’t like some aspect of the competition and wants a waiver or exception. As such, it’s threatening to take its ball and go home if the Department of Education doesn’t play by its rules. This kind of article might help get that exception. The district might be looking for a signal or reassurance from the feds.
  • As an addendum to the bullet above, the school district might already be negotiating with the Department of Education, and this kind of public statement is part of the negotiation process.
  • The district thinks it doesn’t have a real shot at the grant and wants to preemptively cover its ass by announcing that it doesn’t want the grant anyway. This yields a story to tell reporters and angry parents at school board meetings.
  • The district has already screwed up something we don’t know about.
  • There is some political reason the district, the teachers union, the city counsel, the mayor, the governor, or another political entity doesn’t want the district to apply (this is an election year, too, and RTTT-D is one of the rare Federal programs that generates mainstream media coverage; in addition, although presidential politics might not be the driving force, Slate.com’s John Dickerson thinks Obama has a shot in Nevada). Perhaps there’s already a deal in place to offer more or less restricted money.

It’s possible that the district’s story as presented by Takahashi is true. It’s just highly unlikely. The political people and grant writers at the district know or should know the difference between the proposal world and the real world. They know that you have to apply to get the money (one of the school board members says as much). They know there’s a fair amount of money available, and that it would be a handy PR win if the district got the reward, and, moreover, most people and institutions like money. Given those facts, the stated reason for not applying—which amounts to, “it’s too hard”—doesn’t pass the smell test.

This kind of speculation only makes sense in the context of a district large enough to generate political gravity. Smaller districts that claim they don’t want to apply are probably simply telling the truth, or don’t have the political will to apply. For a very large district, like this one, which has access to grant writers or funds for grant writing consultants, something else is almost certainly going on, and the Las Vegas Sun is only being used as a messenger.

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