On July 24, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan introduced a milestone program named Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion fund that sits on the table for the taking from states who can—if they want—submit applications and propose innovative programs for K-12 public schools. The goal is simple: Make a difference in the future of America's education with creative and forward thinking programs that focuses on improving schools and student performance.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the two huge teachers unions in the country, said Race to the Top has a tremendous upside. "If it's done right, it can promote innovation and promote promising ideas and it can be very, very good," she said.

Race to the Top comes in on top of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, approved earlier this year, which earmarked nearly $100 billion for education purposes. It's one of the largest pools of discretionary money ever given out by the Department of Education. In fact, Duncan said the Race to the Top fund is larger than the total discretionary dollars available to every other Education Secretary since the post was created in 1980.

Obama and Duncan say politics will not play a role in what state gets some of the money, and are clear to emphasize that some states won't win any money at all. Duncan described the competition among the states for RTTP as "a once-in-lifetime opportunity for the federal government to create incentives for far-reaching improvement in our nation's schools."

So far, the states have had a chance to digest and then comment on the proposed rules. After the possibility of some revisions to RTTP based on those comments, the deadline for the first round of grants is expected sometime in December, with a second round expected to begin sometime in early 2010.

In order to apply for this program—and it has been estimated a complete application could take as long as nearly 28 full days of around-the-clock work—states are required to prominently feature in their grant proposals the four so-called assurances that are the heart of Race to the Top:

  1. Implement standards and assessments to make kids college- or career-ready
  2. Put in place data systems to track student performance, particularly back to teachers
  3. Take the steps necessary to improve teachers and leaders
  4. Take action to turn around struggling schools

Is There Room for Parents in Race to the Top?

This may sound like one of those federal programs that are barely comprehensible, much less something that parents, teachers or school administrators can impact. But experts across the country insist just the opposite is true. Parents can, and should, be involved in Race to the Top.

Weingarten put it this way: "Our hope is that teachers and parents are included in the process, that their ideas be included. Every state has to put a grant in and parents are a key part of the education community and parents' ideas should be a key part of every state's application."

Maybe you won't get a personal call from Secretary Duncan, but Weingarten and education officials around the country said every state is in the process of getting ideas for their Race to the Top application. Parents, teachers and school administrators can push ideas for reform-minded programs on the local and state level, and those ideas could end up in a state's application for a Race to the Top grant.

North Carolina's Superintendent of Public Instruction June St. Clair Atkinson said parents are part of the process in her state: "I think parents must be integral to looking at ways public education must transform itself, and parents can be the biggest advocates for change and parents can help in determining what will work for children. So I think it's important for parents to be our partners."

Many states are inviting public comment through a variety of different methods. Florida has put together an e-mail comment system, town hall meetings have been scheduled in Iowa, and parents and others in Colorado can join a public committee or submit a letter with suggestions for consideration by officials putting together that state's application.

The point, says Weingarten and others, is that parents are crucial in the education process, as are teachers and school administrators. Their voices should always be heard. But don't just get involved in Race to the Top to try to help your state win a piece of the $4.35 billion pie.

"I also encourage parents to be involved in every aspect of their children's education," Weingarten said. "They are our conscience and our checks and balances. We need parents as our partners. When parents are engaged and involve, then we start becoming more transparent and more accountable and we start talking in English and not education-see."

U.S. Department of Education officials are excited about the possibilities of Race to the Top, of innovative programs that are created from a single state's application that, if successful, can be replicated across the country.

"This is not just mild reform," said Department of Education spokesman Justin Hamilton, borrowing a phrase from President Obama. "This is education's moon shot."