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Gov., Denish Square Off

By Martin Salazar
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          Lt. Gov. Diane Denish had some harsh words Friday for New Mexico's failure to secure a finalist slot for a first-round Race to the Top education reform grant, and Gov. Bill Richardson's office had some harsh words for Denish.
        Denish fired first, issuing a statement criticizing the state's unsuccessful effort. She called it "lackluster" and "inexcusable."
        "It is unacceptable that New Mexico's children will not enjoy the benefits of Race to the Top funding because the grant writing team was not able to put together an application outlining a real, meaningful plan for education reform," Denish said.
        The governor's response: "The Lt. Governor's comments are inappropriate, misinformed and unproductive."
        His office went on to say she chose to sit on the sidelines rather than rolling up her sleeves and working on the application, despite invitations to do so.
        And his office noted that Denish had submitted a letter of support when the state submitted the grant application, calling it "innovative."
        New Mexico had applied for $160 million in Race to the Top funds, but on Thursday U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the 16 first-round finalists. New Mexico wasn't on the list.
        State Education Secretary Veronica Garcia, whose agency took the lead in preparing the application, was unavailable for comment Friday. On Thursday, she said she wants to see the feedback from those who reviewed the state's proposal before deciding whether to apply for the second round of grants.
        Denish said it would be unacceptable for the state not to reapply, adding that every effort should be taken to put together a top notch application.
        A total of $4.35 billion is currently available for Race to the Top grants, but about $2 billion of that will go to winners selected in the first round. The deadline to apply for the second round is June. 1.
        "This type of lackluster performance is inexcusable, and I challenge Dr. Garcia and her team of educators and business leaders to develop a strong and competitive application for New Mexico," said Denish, who is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination for governor.
        She said she thinks the major flaw in New Mexico's application is that it talked too much about what the state had done, and not enough about what it was going to do.
        "They were clearly looking for ideas that were innovative," she said.
        Richardson spokeswoman Alarie Ray-Garcia said that despite Denish's interest in education, she declined repeated invitations to help develop the proposal.
        "Her only involvement was to write a letter in support of the state's proposal, which she praised as being 'innovative,'" Ray-Garcia said.
        "Now, for whatever reason, she has decided to attack the hard work of a lot of New Mexicans, including Secretary Garcia and her staff, who dedicated a lot of time and resources into this proposal. It was a strong proposal and Governor Richardson was proud to spend considerable time in Washington D.C. last week lobbying Secretary Duncan on its merits."
        Denish spokesman James Hallinan said Denish was never invited to participate in the grant-writing process.
        Finger-pointing elsewhere
        Tussles like this one are playing out throughout the country in states that weren't successful, with governors, mayors and unions pointing fingers over not emerging as finalists.
        In California, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said the outcome validated his concerns that bolder reforms were needed in his state.
        New Jersey's education commissioner blamed his state's largest teachers union, which did not support the state's application.
        In Michigan, a spokesman for one of the teachers unions said the state might have emerged a finalist if educators had been more involved in the application process rather than being dictated to.
        Washington officials made it clear during their announcement Thursday that few applicants will walk away with Race to the Top money.
        "The fact is the demand for this funding far exceeds the supply...," Duncan said. "Race to the Top is a competition. Only the best proposals will win."
        States won't find out what reviewers dinged them on until April — after first round Race to the Top Winners are selected and the Education Department releases reviews on all the applicants.
        But a few things are clear.
        New Mexico applied for $160 million when federal guidelines suggested that states with populations like New Mexico should apply for between $23 million and $75 million. Duncan said amounts requested played no role in the evaluations.
        And while the state's chances probably weren't helped by a letter from Albuquerque Teachers Federation President Ellen Bernstein criticizing the state's application, that likely wasn't a determining factor.
        "There was never going to be one deciding factor," Duncan told reporters Thursday. "There were a lot of factors. There were 500 points. Every state had relative strengths. Every state had relative weaknesses. But we were looking at many, many different factors."
        Bernstein's letter stated that the proposal contained in the state's application had little if anything to do with what the state Race to the Top leadership and advisory team discussed. She also said she was concerned that the grant, as written, would add additional needless testing and paperwork to the work of classroom teachers and divert attention and energy away from innovation. But she pledged to work with the state if it were to get the grant.
       

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