The Race Is on for School Reform

A new federal program lets states compete for a piece of $4.35 billion if they commit to change.


President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently held a conference with some of the country's leading education stakeholders and decision makers to announce a new federally subsidized school grant competition for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. They called it Race to the Top. The thinking is that the promise of more than $4.3 billion in federal aid—and the threat of withholding it—will inspire (or force) the education establishment to adopt such reforms as growing and supporting charter schools and performance pay for teachers. The question is how many states and districts will be eager to make reform decisions that would have long-term effects on their schools in order to get funding that might quickly be exhausted.

The Race to the Top money comes from the economic stimulus law, which, along with the fiscal year 2009 budget, will provide more than $5.6 billion in additional grants over the coming months through federal programs that support the Obama administration's school reform priorities.

Race to the Top will award grants based on states' ability to demonstrate reform strategies in four specific areas:

  1. Adopting internationally bench-marked standards and assessments that prepare students for college and workplace success;
  2. Recruiting, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals;
  3. Building data systems that measure student success and tell teachers and principals how they can improve their practices; and
  4. Turning around the lowest-performing schools.
  5. Some combination of the aforementioned efforts are often cited by education advocates as critical to fixing the nation's failing schools, but some equate Washington's reform initiative with putting the screws on schools to adopt changes that might not be in their best interest.

    For example, any state having a law that bars linking student data to teacher evaluation decisions will automatically be out of the running. This irks the two national teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. They oppose the use of student testing data to evaluate or determine pay for individual teachers because, the unions argue, students are often taught by several teachers. Teacher evaluations should be based on measures of performance beyond test scores, the unions say.

    Referring to the fund eligibility requirement involving student data, Mike Petrilli, a vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, told the New York Times, "This is poking teachers unions straight in the eye."

    Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4 million-member AFT, says the union will withhold judgment until the final regulations are issued but will ultimately judge the fund by how much the program helps students, whether it is fair to teachers, whether it is transparent to the public, and whether it requires shared responsibility.

    In recent months, Duncan has sung the praises of charter schools—schools that are publicly funded but independently controlled. He is urging states to use the grant funds to ease limits on charter schools and warning that those who don't will put themselves at a competitive disadvantage. In June, as the Rhode Island legislature debated $1.5 million in spending for two charter schools, Duncan said at a charter school conference: "We are fighting this on a state-by-state battle," the Washington Post reported. "Places like Rhode Island that are thinking of underfunding charters . . . we don't think that's a smart thing for them to do, and we're going to make that very clear."

    The money was approved.

    In an op-ed penned by Duncan that ran in the Post, the education secretary referred to the Race to the Top fund as education reform's "moonshot" and said that it marks "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the federal government to create incentives for far-reaching improvement in our nation's schools."

    Congressional Republicans, however, say the initiative is wasteful. And while Jeanne Allen, president of the Washington-based Center for Education Reform, applauds the administration's grand effort to transform public education, she worries that "reform that is bought can easily be voted away once the federal coffers run dry."

    "True reform of the country's public education system will occur when all federal dollars are tied to innovation, not merely through individual programs," she said in a statement.

    Some states are moving ahead with radical reforms despite the risk of roiling key education groups. The Wall Street Journal reported that Boston's mayor, Tom Menino, wants Massachusetts communities to be able to transform traditional public schools into charter schools and link teachers' pay to student performance. Such proposals would likely face opposition from school boards and teachers unions, but that's a risk some are willing to take with new federal funds at stake.

    "It would be a political disaster for anybody to be seen as reducing our ability to access that money," Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank, said in a WSJ interview.

    Such sentiments worry Weingarten. She thinks that some states are moving too fast and that the availability of new federal grants "is pushing people to say and do things simply because everybody is desperate for resources."

    Rolling Stone magazine has even weighed in, mocking the size of the grant program and other ballyhooed federal funding streams. In a short editorial, Tim Dickinson wrote that the reform program "is less than the collective amount the president is spending on a feckless carbon-capture demonstration project and the goofy $1 billion cash-for-clunkers initiative."

    Following a 30-day public comment period, the Education Department will finalize regulations and start accepting applications for the Race to the Top competition this fall. The first round of grants will go out early next year. A second round of applications will likely be due in June 2010. More information is available on the department's website.

    education reform
    Obama, Barack
    Duncan, Arne
    Rhode Island