Not too long into President Barack Obama's speech last week at Wright Middle School, he received loud applause when he said that some bad teachers may have to be fired in order to improve education.
He also said states would have to repeal their "firewalls" - laws that prevent school districts from using student test scores to evaluate teachers - if they wanted to compete for funding under his $4.3 billion Race to the Top reform program.
Within days of the president's visit, the state Legislature pushed through a package of education reform bills that removed Wisconsin's firewall and suddenly made the state a contender for Race to the Top funds. The legislation also strengthened charter school review criteria, created a data system to track student performance from kindergarten through college, and changed how Milwaukee schools apply for state grants. Now, student performance data can be used as a factor to evaluate teacher performance, but not as the sole reason to dismiss or discipline a teacher.
On Monday, Gov. Jim Doyle signed the bills into law.
Now, some are pointing to Obama's visit, recent legislative action and the fact that Wisconsin is home to one of the worst school districts in the country, Milwaukee Public Schools, as reasons Wisconsin could land some Race to the Top funding over other states.
"Milwaukee is a perfect example of a school system the President and (U.S. Education Secretary) Arne Duncan are talking about," says Rep. Sondy Pope-Roberts, D-Middleton, and chair of the Assembly Education Committee. "It has problems, but it is not a Chicago or a New York. It is small enough for us to get our arms around."
The Milwaukee school district is the state's largest with roughly 82,000 students. It has one of the worst achievement gaps between minority and white students and one of the worst high school graduation rates in the country. Wisconsin's statewide achievement gap is also the worst in the nation.
Doyle has said he plans to call lawmakers back for a special session to pass legislation that would further demonstrate the state's commitment to meet the president's call for education reform by turning the Milwaukee schools around. Although details still need to be finalized, the bill would put responsibility for the schools under the Milwaukee mayor's office. Pope-Roberts says lawmakers still are hashing out whether to give the Milwaukee mayor the sole ability to select a superintendent or to make the decision a joint effort of the mayor and school board.
"We can be a role model for what Obama is trying to do with failing schools," Pope-Roberts says. "There is a reason they [Obama and Duncan] were here. I think both of them want to see Wisconsin receive those funds. I see us as very well positioned. In fact, I would put us near the top."
Despite spending one-on-one time with Obama and Duncan last week, Doyle isn't as willing to link Wisconsin's odds of pulling down federal funds with the president's visit.
"I think it is pretty clear we should not assume that because he was here, we are a state that will receive funds," Doyle says. "I do think we should attach importance to the fact he chose a state that is making changes."
While Wisconsin scrambles to pass laws and better position itself for federal money, so are many other states, as the president pointed out during his speech in Madison.
Obama recognized Connecticut's New Haven school district for its efforts to turn around low-performing schools. Delaware, Louisiana, Tennessee and Illinois also received presidential praise for their efforts to "let innovative charter schools flourish."
"We're not just handing it out to states because they want it. We're not just handing it out based on population," Obama said. "It's not just going through the usual political formulas. We're challenging states to compete for it."
From coast to coast, states are changing their laws to join the fast-moving bid for Race to the Top grants, which were announced July 24. Application guidelines will be released by the U.S. Department of Education within weeks.
The Race to the Top program was enacted as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly referred to as the federal stimulus bill. While exact application guidelines are forthcoming, the Obama administration has outlined four areas where states should focus their efforts: standards and assessments; data systems to support instruction; support for committed and qualified teachers and leaders; and the ability to turn around struggling schools.
In September, the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for pairing high-need students with quality teachers, released a report ranking the competitiveness of each state in the race for Race to the Top funds. Louisiana and Florida were the only two states graded as highly competitive, as they already had laws or systems in place that met most of the criteria.
Wisconsin joined California, Nevada, New York and Pennsylvania on the bottom of the pile. Wisconsin was cited for its lack of a data-tracking system and its firewall law.
California, like Wisconsin, has since repealed its firewall law. But California's law allows teachers to be dismissed based on student performance data. Dan Weisberg, vice president of policy and general counsel with The New Teacher Project, says it is "problematic" that Wisconsin's law doesn't allow for the same.
"If California can do it, Wisconsin should be able to do it, too," Weisberg says.
In New York, lawmakers and some union officials are considering letting its firewall expire in a year. Nevada officials, on the other hand, have essentially taken themselves out of the race by saying they do not intend to repeal the state's firewall law.
But many others are staying in contention. Rhode Island Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, for example, has assembled a Race to the Top steering committee. The state also opened its first "mayoral academy" charter school this fall. The school has longer school days than public schools, from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., and the school year is 190 rather than 180 days. Obama is a strong supporter of high-performing charter schools.
Massachusetts also has ramped up its commitment to charter schools since Race to the Top guidelines were released. This summer, Gov. Deval Patrick stood alongside Duncan and announced a plan to expand the state's charter school system by 27,000 seats. With 62 charter schools now open and 120 allowed by state law, Massachusetts was not previously viewed as a supporter of charter schools, according to the Boston Globe.
In comparison, Wisconsin has 220 charter schools. That is one of the highest numbers in the country, according to Pope-Roberts' office. Now, standards set by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers will be used to establish charter schools and gauge their performance. That requirement was among the education reform bills signed into law by Doyle earlier this week.
The package of education reforms took less than two weeks from introduction to passage - a speedy timeline for legislative action.
"While chair of the Senate Education Committee, I don't remember ever moving bills through that fast," says Sen. John Lehman, D-Racine. "We worked very quickly to make sure we had the language in place to apply for Race to the Top. I think we're now in a good spot."