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Washington Examiner


Race to the Top Pushing Incentives For Reform

June 02, 2010

By Marcus A. Winters

Yesterday marked the deadline for states to submit applications for the second round of the Race to the Top grant competition. RttT hasn’t been perfect, and it has its detractors among education reformers, but the ambitious experiment has successfully moved the education reform ball further and faster than anyone expected it could.

RttT leverages a relatively small number of federal dollars to produce big education reforms. The Obama administration gave Secretary of Education Arne Duncan $3.4 billion in funds left over from the 2008 stimulus program.

Rather than simply distributing the dollars to cash-strapped states, Duncan set up the RttT competition. States could increase their chances of winning funding by adopting meaningful education reforms such as increasing their number of charter schools, evaluating teachers based on their performance, and developing data systems to track student performance and link it to teachers.

Some thought Duncan would use smoke and mirrors to give the illusion of reform, but when only two states (Delaware and Tennessee) were awarded money in Round 1 of the competition, it was clear that the former CEO of Chicago Public Schools meant business.

With their appetites whetted and their treasuries dry, states have stepped up reform efforts. Several states raised their charter school caps. Colorado essentially eliminated teacher tenure. Florida was poised to do likewise until Governor Charlie Crist determined that siding with the teachers’ unions was in the interest of his senate campaign.

Thanks to RttT, states that were previously resistant to meaningful education reforms have been one-upping each other in an attempt to improve schools.

New York stands out as perhaps RttT’s most important success story. The progress in education reform in the state, and especially the city, was beginning to stall. Charter schools, which had proliferated rapidly, were about to hit their legislated limit of 200 across the state.

With about 40,000 kids on charter school waiting lists in New York City alone, the case to raise the cap was overwhelming. But the teachers’ unions blocked all previous efforts to raise the cap, mostly by manipulating their allies in the legislature.

Policymakers and opinion leaders pushed the RttT line and convinced legislators to buck the unions. Mayor Bloomberg, Governor Patterson, a bevy of state legislators, and all of the city’s important newspapers adopted the cause. Last week, legislators in Albany voted to more than double the number of charter schools allowed to operate in the state.

By some estimates, up to 10 percent of New York City’s students could enroll in charters within the next five years. In addition, lawmakers adopted a new evaluation system for teachers that would utilize standardized test scores and allow schools to remove consistently ineffective teachers — reforms that were hardly part of the discussion before RttT.

Put plainly, RttT is setting the education policy agenda. The prospect of bringing in up to $700 million is very appealing to states that are bleeding red ink. And it doesn’t hurt that a Democratic president is leading the way. The Democratic party has been aligned with the teachers’ unions for decades.

The competition has emboldened policymakers to swing for the fences. Just as importantly, it has led those who hadn’t previously taken an active interest in education issues — and thus reflexively took the easy road of not challenging the powerful unions — to rethink their positions.

Struggling states are certainly in need of the prize money on offer, and any awards that are made in Round 2 will validate the political risks taken by legislators in Albany and elsewhere, but the real reason to adopt these reforms is simpler: They are good for kids.

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