The Obama administration’s Race to the Top was probably as good as it gets in the world of federal education reform. But it wasn’t very good. Washington may be constitutionally incapable of producing substantive reform measures.
There’s no question the Race was founded on good intentions. The administration and Arne Duncan, the reform-minded education secretary, seemed to get it that our education system is floundering and the status quo isn’t working. Federal education funds had been concentrated in programs for disabled children, low-income students and school meals. Though these programs may be laudable, using schools as social-service agencies does nothing to raise academic standards or close achievement gaps between racial groups.
The Race was conceived as a way to incentivize states to make progress in areas like teacher accountability for student achievement and development of charter schools. Schools made applications touting their achievements and prize winners were selected. The winners of the second round of competition, nine states and D.C., recently joined the two first-round winners. Arizona was not among them.
The program was immediately proclaimed a success. “Every state that applied showed a tremendous amount of leadership and a bold commitment to education reform,” Duncan said. “The creativity and innovation in each of these applications is breath-taking.”
Yet the program structure is troublesome. Public money should be spent for the welfare of all, not in a sports-style competition where winners get prizes and losers just go home. After all, taxpayers from all states provide the funds and should share in the benefits. Worse, cash prizes for the winners arguably result in the rich getting richer and the poor getting — well, you know what. The states which need help the most get nothing.
There’s more to the story. Despite Secretary Duncan’s gushing comments, there was widespread skepticism that the winning applications really represented strong reform efforts or that the strongest applications were the winners. The confounding factor was that to win, states were required to get buy-in from their teachers’ unions.
For the Obama administration, this made perfect political sense. Since the Race was based on reforms that the unions adamantly oppose, it risked alienating a major support group. Giving unions de-facto veto power over the applications was a clever way of keeping them on board.
But for educational purposes, requiring union agreement was a dreadful mistake. These are the groups that for four decades now have resisted every attempt to empower parents, to remove poor teachers and provide more educational opportunities for disadvantaged students.
Thus Colorado, widely regarded as having the strongest application, finished out of the money, despite the dramatic progress it made. The reason? The Colorado Education Association withdrew its support after the legislature passed a law making it easier to dismiss low-performing teachers.
Indiana’s education head pleaded with his state’s unions for support, noting that “one factor is crucial to a successful application: strong statewide support from a teachers’ union.” He was turned down, as was Indiana’s highly regarded entrant in the Race.
Meanwhile, Maryland and Hawaii, offering relatively inconsequential proposals (i.e., vague promises to overhaul low-performing schools), were supported by their unions and became proud prize-winners. The net effect of putting the unions in a blocking position was that only the most toothless proposals made it over the finish line. “The rhetoric of Race to the Top has turned into a farce,” said Mike Petrilli of the Fordham Foundation.
Surprise, surprise. Another federal education “reform,” following Bush’s No Child Left Behind and countless other programs, comes to us politicized, diluted and guaranteed to make little impact, despite the billions of dollars thrown at it. It’s too bad our money is going for such nonsense.
The good news is that Arizona is on a much more hopeful course than most of the prize winners. Strong reforms passed this year alone provide for more authorization of charter schools, prevention of “social promotion” of third-graders unable to read and alternative routes to teacher certification among others improvements. Too bad we can’t keep our own money. We’re doing fine without any help from the feds.
East Valley resident Tom Patterson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a retired physician and former state senator.