Will HISD Thumb Its Nose at Rick Perry & Go for the Race to the Top?

The deadline is looming for the next round of the Race to the Top, a program federal education department officials all but admit was drafted for Houston Independent School District after Texas refused to compete for federal grants.

When Education Secretary Arne Duncan hinted such a district-based Race to the Top might be forthcoming -- right after the Republic of Texas and home to future presidential candidate Rick Perry declined to participate -- Texas Education Agency Education Commissioner Robert Scott groused that school districts considering such an option ("Hey you, Houston ISD!") might think long and hard about pursuing the grant.

In the intervening year, Scott has walked back those remarks. Next week, Scott will be gone from the TEA altogether. Now the field is open for Houston ISD to consider its foray into the warm, warm waters of Obama-backed education reform, including many measures already backed in Texas.

In San Diego, where the International Society for Technology in Education met, officials in Duncan's education department offered two words for Superintendent Terry Grier and the HISD school board: digital learning.

Practically everything in this round of Race to the Top is about "personalized learning," and when officials from Duncan's education department used that phrase in a workshop session this morning, Richard Culatta and Karen Cator were clear what that meant: Personalized learning is digital learning. And digital learning is seeking data, gathering data and using data, and not just digital textbooks.

Spokesman Jason Spencer, asked about Houston ISD's impending application, provided a nifty paragraph that affirmed that HISD had "gotten the memo." (That's just a hypothetical memo. We're much more inclined to picture a "Bat Phone" on Grier's desk that connects him directly to Duncan's office.)

"We are especially encouraged that the winners in this round of grants will be those districts with well-articulated plans for providing teachers with support to differentiate their instruction based on student needs and empowering individual students to drive their own educational experiences with the aim of preparing all graduates to excel in college or in the workplace," Spencer wrote. "We know that the use of technology will be a key lever to achieving these priorities."

Whew. That's good. If Houston ISD spurred the creation of a $400 million federal grant program for school districts, then they would certainly have egg on their faces if they aren't one of the presumed dozen or so winners announced at year's end.

Houston ISD will have competition. A number of large-city school districts in a conference session on Monday appeared ready and chomping at the bit to pursue the dollars, which are expected to be around $25 million per district. A blip on the grant radar for most major districts in the age of Gates and Broad, but a real thumbing of the nose at the Perry administration.

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