(Shaun Fink) – All across the fruited plain, state governments are scrambling around trying to scrounge their portion of the $1.35 billion expansion of the “Race to the Top” (RTTT) program funds that the Obama administration has added in its FY 2011 budget.
This is in addition to the $4.35 billion for RTTT included in last year’s stimulus bill. Under the Department of Education’s (DOE) guidelines for RTTT, states must meet certain requirements to be eligible for a share of these competitive grants. And here in Delaware, the clamor can be heard everywhere.
“Race to the Top” is based on the theory that incentives and guidelines provided by the Department of Education in Washington can spur effective education reforms by state governments and school districts. Unfortunately the pains of the last attempt to do just that are still fresh in the psyche of the administrators, teachers and parents throughout Delaware’s nineteen school districts. “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) served to prove that strengthening federal control may result in a number of unintended consequences.
A central purpose of NCLB was to improve public school accountability through state testing and sanctions for low-performing schools. However, the end result was less effective than the goal. The entire program ultimately failed to improve any measure of accountability, rather mounting pressure from state education departments forced school administrators to insist on improving scores.
In turn, those administrators laid the brunt of the responsibility on the shoulders of the teachers and left them with no option other than teaching to the test. This produced an environment that was far from conducive to learning and focused mainly on the results of those dastardly DSTP tests.
Perhaps, instead of rushing headlong into the newest incarnation of the government model of accountability in education, the governor and Secretary of Education should realize that there are several lessons to be learned from the NCLB experience and many reasons to be wary of the “Race to the Top” initiative.
First, the federal government has no jurisdiction or real authority to force states and school districts to comply with reforms. In reality, the struggle to implement real school reforms at the state and local level is a political one. For school reforms to work, the governor, legislators and DDOE officials must all embrace reform strategies and commit to seeing them through to the end.
Federal incentives and punishments will have a limited ability to convince state and local politicians to take on the political challenge of education reform.
Second, school districts would likely water down or poorly implement the reforms championed by RTTT. Furthermore, elected officials would be pre-occupied with other issues and unwilling to force their hand. In fact, the most likely scenario is for all the hard work and promises made checking all those boxes on the application to go to waste in relation to actual educational reform.
Delaware will get the money, but will not advance charter schools nor fulfill the other requirements of RTTT. According to Andy Smarick of the Fordham Institute, this is a national concern since several states have already implemented reforms in response to the incentives of RTTT.
But it remains to be seen whether legislative changes will lead to successful implementation. Andy notes that Tennessee lifted its charter school cap, and in response, Memphis and Nashville denied all 24 charter applications submitted.
Third, RTTT is aimed at strengthening federal power in setting K-12 education policies for states and school districts, and providing a path for national standards and tests. This is problematic on a number of levels. The federal government does not have constitutional authority to fund or regulate public education. While Washington became more involved in regulating and funding schools during the latter half of the 20th century, this role has historically been limited.
Forth, the RTTT competition is creating an incentive for Delaware to increase spending and develop new education programs at a time when the budget is face challenging deficits. The programs required by the initiative do not go away after the funding stops. This will place an even greater burden on future budget negotiations.
A better solution to Delaware’s educational challenge would provide for structural reforms of current Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) programs to enable and encourage effective bottom-up reforms. One way to do this is granting states flexibility and control over the funds received from Washington. These federal funds are currently provided to states and school districts through dozens of formulas and competitive grant programs, many of which are ineffective or duplicative. They also impose significant administrative and compliance costs.
States should be granted greater autonomy over how federal funds are used to benefit student learning. This should include the power to terminate or consolidate programs and redirect funds to state initiatives with limited federal guidelines. Reformation of the Title I program, which aims to improve educational opportunities for disadvantaged children, is essential so that the monies provided can follow students to a school of their parents’ choice.
Recall that school choice was to be one of the shining results of “No Child Left Behind”. Unfortunately, many school districts failed to comply with NCLB’s limited school choice options. “Race to the Top” is focused on charter schools; another admirable goal.
Realistically, charter schools will no doubt meet the same fate here in Delaware as school choice. The Delaware State Education Association (DSEA), the state’s teachers’ union, has been trying from inception to slowing destroy the charter school movement in this state. It seems a little more than peculiar that they should now be embracing the idea. The promise of millions of dollars of federal tax dollars can have quite an effect on the affability of an organization.
The proof, however, will be in the pudding.
(Shaun Fink is Executive Vice President of the Caesar Rodney Institute)