Consultants want piece of Race to the Top funding

Maryland deputy superintendent is popular but money won't be given out for a while

February 17, 2011|By Liz Bowie, The Baltimore Sun

Leslie Wilson's work as a behind-the-scenes bureaucrat may involve statistical analysis and minutiae that would put most of the world to sleep, but she has suddenly become one of the most powerful people in the Maryland State Department of Education, sometimes more sought-after than her boss, Nancy S. Grasmick.

Wilson is the assistant state superintendent for assessment, a lively woman who keeps track of student test scores and is now a magnet for contractors seeking work in a tough economy.

So many people wanted to speak with Wilson this past fall that she stopped answering the phone or responding to e-mails from some of them. That's because she has money to give away, and in the world of education, it's the biggest pot of money consultants have seen in years. Everyone wants a bit of it.

Wilson has federal stimulus money to hand out, about one-third of the $125 million that the state education department received from Race to the Top, a competition held for federal stimulus funds last year. So dozens of people representing for-profit companies, colleges and universities, and nonprofits will go to great lengths to get her time.

"Everyone came out of the woodwork, fast and furious, when [they] heard we were going to have a procurement," she said.

They call her. They e-mail her. They approach her at conferences. They enlist friends to act as emissaries to ask for a private meeting. One vendor even decided to use a connection with Grasmick; another contractor approached her saying it wasn't to talk about "business."

She has a few words for all of them: Don't get near me.

Speaking to contractors who want a piece of the federal largesse might disqualify them from bidding on the projects, she said. And that means that the state might miss out on awarding a contract to the best firm to do the job or to a firm that can do it more cheaply than another.

"They understand, but they don't want to abide by it," said Wilson, who added that the contractors are a varied group. "People who you have never heard of and people who should know better."

The frenzy in interest from contractors is happening all across the country, caused by the unprecedented size and scope of the nearly $100 billion federal stimulus effort. Thursday was the second anniversary of President Barack Obama signing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the heart of the stimulus effort, into law.

"Some are calling it 'No Consultant Left Behind,'" said Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington.

The list of contractors who have expressed an interest in applying in Maryland is pages and pages long.

They are as large and well-known as Schoolnet, a New York-based software technology company that has contracts in one-third of the major urban school systems in America, and as small as Age of Awareness, a one-woman shop looking for a grant.

The difficulty of the tasks at hand make education-consulting a lucrative enterprise. Those in the field say it is typical for an individual expert to make between $1,500 and $5,000 a day, depending on one's level of expertise.

"There's a sense of confusion and anxiety," said Scott Joftus, director of the Race to the Top Technical Assistance Network, a stimulus-funded contractor that is aiding states and districts in implementing their bold plans.

The scramble reflects the scope of the states' ambitions. "There's a lot of money being thrown into the system at the same time to create changes that have never been done before," Joftus said. "States have promised a ridiculous amount of change."

The Race to the Top funds were given to states that promised to enact the Obama administration's reform agenda. In the state's efforts to win its $250 million share, Maryland education officials and lawmakers made significant reforms in the rules governing teacher tenure and evaluations, agreed to overhaul failing schools and pledged to develop a new system for collecting student data. Maryland learned last summer that it was one of the states with a winning application.

The awarding of the technology contracts is likely to take place over the next year, but it is so complex that Wilson said the state has first asked contractors to tell officials what services they can provide. So the state sent out a "request for information." Based on the responses, the state is writing technical guidelines, which companies will use to bid on the work.

The money may be spent on providing professional development for teachers, creating a website for teachers and building the state's capacity to keep longitudinal data to make better education policy decisions, among other things.

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