Republicans and Democrats Can Embrace Obama's Race to the Top for Education

With an unacceptable status quo, education reform is winning over both sides.


Education Secretary Arne Duncan brought the political odd couple of Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich to my home state of Maryland recently, touring charter schools in Baltimore—and that was after they'd gone to Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Alabama. "Everywhere we're going, we're seeing not incremental change, not slight change, but dramatic change—exponential growth. And our challenge and our opportunity is how do you take to scale what's working," Duncan said, according to the Baltimore Sun. "For all the challenges we face, and they are huge, I'm unbelievably hopeful about where we're going."

Their bipartisan traveling roadshow is highlighting the most innovative and aggressive reforms in America, trying to turn around what can only be described as a crisis in American education and, for that matter, in civil rights. U.S. high school students are ranked 16th out of 30 of the world's richest countries in science test scores; in math, they ranked 24th in the most recent scores on the Program for International Student Assessment tests. There is a wide and stubborn gap between the scores of white and minority students in reading and math, and that gap has not narrowed since the 1970s.

What's at stake is $4.3 billion in stimulus money, by far the largest pool of discretionary education funding in American history. It's all going into the Race to the Top fund, to be awarded to the states between now and June 2010. The states that submit the most aggressive, innovative educational reforms will win the cash. The idea is to do it without the usual expansion of the federal bureaucracy and to leverage federal dollars to get states to think outside the box. Colorado's Department of Education, for example, has assembled hundreds of state officials, mayors, educators, and community members for dozens of public meetings on new strategies for improving schools in order to qualify for the grants.

What I like about it is the accountability: Winning the money will be based on success measured by students' test results not only by school—as the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind Act did—but by individual teacher. This has never been done before in American public schools. That's too bad, because it's a great idea. Why shouldn't teachers be judged by how well their students do? Teachers should have a vested interest in seeing that their students flourish. Some states prohibit teachers from being evaluated by their students' test scores and reject linking achievement data to teacher and principal evaluations. But if those states want a piece of the $4.3 billion, they're going to have to change those laws. Entrenched teachers who resist higher standards, merit pay, and standardized testing are about to become a thing of the past.

The reason teachers haven't been held accountable is because the teachers unions have historically been opposed to measures to increase accountability, such as charter schools, vouchers, and merit pay. For example, charter schools like the ones Gingrich and Sharpton are visiting aren't unionized. Duncan says states that put a cap on the number of charter schools will be "at a competitive disadvantage" in the race for reform money. Instead, schools will be rewarded for adopting internationally benchmarked standards, closing the "data gap" with new monitoring, retaining teachers in high-poverty schools, and turning around the worst-performing schools by replacing the school leadership, no matter what the unions say.

By equating the status quo with failure, President Obama is challenging the unions directly. In a Nixon-goes-to-China sort of way, he's the one guy who can do it and succeed. To everyone's surprise, it's working—after initial opposition, the unions are now going along with his Race to the Top.

And the president has found an unlikely ally in former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who says conservatives should support Obama's Race to the Top. "The fact of the matter is, the guy is on the right track," Bush told ABC News. "I think he sincerely believes that the system has let down an entire generation of students, particularly students of lower income, and he's passionate about it, and the policies reflect a way to improve them."