Editorial: thenewstribune.com, March 31, 2010

A trip at the Race to the Top finish line

It’s report card time for Race to the Top: “A” for theory, an “A” for effort but a shaky “B-” on the final exam.

The Obama administration set out to shake up the educational status quo last year when it put up $4.35 billion in prize money for states on the front lines of school reform. So far, it has partially succeeded, even among some foot-draggers like Washington.

Proof lies in the education bill Gov. Chris Gregoire has just signed into law. For Washington – an important qualifier – the bill is a big move. For the first time, the state will be able to intervene in schools and districts that just can’t seem to deliver a decent education. New teachers will remain on trial for three years, not two.

Most important, the new law makes it possible to connect student performance data to teacher evaluations. The Washington Education Association – the dominatrix of school policy in the Legislature – has been death on that idea, but it appears to have acquiesced to a half-hearted use of data.

It’s not likely any such legislation would have come out of Olympia this year absent the political pressure created by the allure of that money in a state desperate for cash. Washington, as expected, didn’t try nearly as hard as some other states, because the pushback from the status quo would have been so ferocious. Washington, for example, still insists on prohibiting all independently governed public charter schools – a reform standard specified under Race to the Top.

The U.S. Department of Education’s effort to push change gets high scores. But when Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the first round of winners Monday, he may have hamstrung the whole initiative.

The two victors – Delaware and Tennessee – will share more than $600 million, and they deserve it. Completely stiffed, though, were other equally aggressive reformers, especially Florida and Louisiana, which had been favored to win. Duncan explicitly cited “statewide buy-in” as the factor that divided the winners from the losers.

That means the teachers unions and local school districts were on board in Delaware and Tennessee; they weren’t on board in Florida and Louisiana. Those data-driven teacher evaluations were crucial. All four states officially embraced them, but the local unions in Delaware and Tennessee supported their use while their counterparts in Florida and Louisiana remained opposed.

From the sounds of it, Duncan has just handed teachers unions throughout the country virtual veto power over future Race to the Top grants. If you can’t get to reform except over the objections of the unions, forget applying. Or else water down your efforts, as Washington has, to keep everybody singing “Kumbaya.”

That may be too stark a reaction. Maybe the Obama administration really didn’t intend to leave Race to the Top hostage to union politics and pressure. Let’s hope round two of the competition deserves a higher grade.

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