Today, the Obama administration is providing details of the “Race to the Top” fund, a $4.35 billion program that allows the secretary of Education to invest in states serious about education reform. Here are several useful things to know:
Exaggerated Claims and Managed Expectations: While this is big education news, we have to manage our expectations about what it can actually accomplish. The program represents less than 1 percent of what the U.S. spends annually on K-12 schooling, and it is a one-time influx of funding. No family would say that a 1 percent income increase that disappears after a year would fundamentally alter its finances. Unfortunately, Education Secretary Arne Duncan is inflating expectations, calling the program education reform’s “moon shot.”
No Picking and Choosing: Rather than laying out its priorities and then allowing states to choose which they want to pursue, the department took the audacious—some might say presumptuous—step of requiring states to embrace them all. Its rationale is that states need to have a comprehensive approach to reform, and that this requires doing everything the department likes. If you agree with the department’s priorities, you’ll like this approach; if you are generally concerned about this administration’s heavy-handed overreaching, this is more fuel for your fire.
Policy and Programs: Having a good application will not be enough to win over the department. It is requiring that a state’s proposal address key reforms and that the state has public policies in place that support reform. If you like the administration’s thrust, this won’t bother you so much. But for supporters of federalism, the federal government’s attempt to dictate state education policies will be very disquieting.
Blink on Eligibility: The department only included one substantive requirement, demanding that applicants allow student performance data to be linked back to their teachers and principals. This is a good requirement, but it’s a surprise and shame they didn’t include others, most notably requiring states to completely lift charter school caps.
Strong on Teachers and Charters: The department wants to see alternative forms of teacher certification, the use of student performance data in teacher evaluations, and empirically driven evaluations of teacher preparation programs (all good ideas). And it wants to see limited restrictions on charter growth, fair operational funding, the swift closure of bad charters, and funding for facilities (again, good ideas).
National Standards: The department decided that the only way to go on content standards and assessments is for states to give up their ages-old prerogative to decide for themselves what is best and instead jointly develop “common” (read: national) standards and tests. Though the creation of common, “internationally benchmarked” standards is all the rage in most education reform circles today, I’m skeptical of this course.
Light on Failing Schools: Regarding the debate over what to do with our worst schools (close them or try to turn them around), the department split the baby, allowing both strategies (I would have strongly preferred a preference for closures and new starts). The department also opened the door to light interventions that virtually never succeed. For those familiar with No Child Left Behind, this, in my opinion, is the Race to the Top’s equivalent of that law’s infamous “other” option under restructuring—an easy way out.
Teachers Unions Marginalized: The administration is strongly embracing reforms detested by teachers’ unions. When a left-of-center Democratic president is so publicly at odds with these reliable members of the liberal base, it shows how far out of the mainstream many of the unions’ positions actually are. Consequently, they seem unsure what to do, simultaneously saying that they are fully with the president and that they have deep concerns.
Conservatives Win Except on Choice: In education policy, yesterday’s right is today’s center. Reforms advocated by conservatives for years are now official priorities for the center and substantial segments of the left. One shrinking branch of conservatism, however, is not happy. Those whose sole education principle is “local control” are certain to be discomfited by the feds pushing around states and districts. Also worth noting: private school choice is completely absent as is any reference to America’s invaluable but besieged faith-based urban schools. Despite their able service to countless disadvantaged students, apparently the department thinks they play no role in the larger education reform discussion.
Trojan Horse Applications: Now we know what the department wants to see. But the real issue is what state applications will ultimately look like. My biggest concern is that since so many states are so cash hungry, they may be looking for money to sustain what they already do. This could manifest itself in applicants spinning status quo–oriented proposals as true reforms. The department must be vigilant on this score.
Andy Smarick is an adjunct fellow at AEI and a distinguished visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.