Does Race to The Top Force States to Trade Values for Dollars?

By Julianne Hing Apr 05, 2010

Now that the first round of winners from the Obama administration’s education reform by way of competitive grants have been announced, states are starting to get honest about what the application and qualifying process has meant for their states. Of the forty states that applied for the first round of $4.35 billion in federal Race to the Top money, only two states, Delaware and Tennessee, received any money. "It was like the Olympic Games, and we were an American skater with a Soviet judge from the 1980s," said Colorado Governor Bill Ritter, Jr. to the New York Times. Sure, the panel of judges is kept anonymous and the criteria for selection somewhat ambiguous. And while the final scoring sheet was made available, folks are still disgruntled about how mysterious the whole process has been. Analysts and educators spent the better part of last week poring over the data to figure out what the deciding factors were. But the question that progressive educational equity activists are asking is: is this contest, so full of conditions that require school overhauls that may be more harsh than helpful, money that will best serve the needs of the students and communities that need it most? Is this a contest that we should be poring all our resources into winning? New York Governor David Paterson is blaming his state’s loss on two factors: that New York, like many other states, puts a cap on the number of charter schools that may open and did not heed his direction to lift the cap. He’s also saying that New York might have gotten a cut of the pie, if only the state legislature had agreed to incorporate student performance data before granting (or to enable it to revoke) teacher tenure. Others have speculated that states whose applications did not come with strong support from their respective teachers’ unions put their eligibility at risk as well. Could it be because Race to the Top reforms, while dramatic and fancy-sounding, might not really be in the best interest of students who are stuck in the hardest hit and most struggling schools? Race to the Top Eligibility demanded several agreements from states: they would receive money if their lowest-performing schools agreed to one of four strict models: the "turnaround model," in which a school must fire all of its staff and re-hire no more than half, who are all then required to sign a contract that ties them to strict reforms. The second is the "restart model," an option where a failing school must close and may only reopen if it’s taken over by a charter school. The third, the "school closure model," shuts down the school and scatters students around the district. The last, the "transformational model," mandates that principals who’ve been with their failing school for more than two years get the boot, and teachers get sent in for more training and new programs. On top of that, teacher tenure would be linked to student performance on standardized tests. Teachers whose students’ scores did not improve for three consecutive years face termination. The belief underlying Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s plan is that complacent teachers and administrators are the problem. The answer is to oust those administrators who are stuck in a rut and dramatically reshuffle the staff, and infuse the school district with the presence of charter schools. "Promoting that schools be closed, or principals, teachers or other staff fired, may be short sighted at best," wrote Amina Luqman-Dawson, the senior policy strategist at the racial justice education think tank Justice Matters about the Obama administration’s education reforms. "Although in the short run these strategies provide a short-term prize; removing the most egregious numbers, it does little to reshape the system in the long-term to ensure that the same problems don’t resurface." But school districts around the state are falling in line. Two weeks ago a high school in Savannah, Georgia, in the hopes of winning other federal money, fired its entire teaching staff. President Obama publicly praised a Rhode Island school board that made a similar decision recently. In this tough economy, states are not in a position to turn down money, and have been scrambling to do whatever they can to be Race to the Top eligible. "Anyone loves to get $700 million, but a lot of those reactions are short-sighted," said Jack Loveridge, a policy analyst with Justice Matters. "They don’t look at what that money would have done in the long run."