Education Reform Sweeping Across The Country And Under The Radar

By Julianne Hing May 07, 2010

Education reform doesn’t seem to be getting the national headlines that financial regulation, climate change, and even the perpetually unpopular immigration reform gets. But the move to remake federal education policy is already happening around the country. Colorado is currently embroiled in a down to the wire debate over a statewide education reform bill that’s being tossed back and forth for the last month. Connecticut, with just three hours left in its 2010 legislative session, passed its own sweeping education bill this week. After losing out in the first round of Race to the Top, the federal $4.3 billion competitive grants program, legislators in both states scrambled to make themselves eligible for $175 million in money from Round 2. The next cycle of applications for RTTT are due June 1. The Connecticut version significantly eases restrictions on charter schools and requires that low-performing schools put together councils made up of community members, parents and educators who can lead the charge to overhaul schools that are resistant to change and improve. At the core of both bills are policies that institute higher standards for education achievement and most controversially, link teacher evaluations to their students’ performance. In Colorado in particular, where the biggest teacher union in the state vigorously opposes the bill, teacher tenure, which would be required after three years, could be revoked if a teacher got two years of bad evaluations. And 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation would be based on student growth–principals wouldn’t get off easy, either. Two thirds of their evaluations would hinge on student growth and teacher performance. But if a teacher couldn’t shake off their "ineffective" probation status in one year, they could be fired without due process. And now, with just days before the end of Colorado’s legislative session, it looks like Colorado’s bill could potentially fail. The debate in Colorado is emblematic of ones happening elsewhere in the country. Kansas City is struggling to remake its policy in the vision laid out by the Obama administration. Florida’s Republican governor, Charlie Crist, vetoed another version of education reform in his state after overwhelming public pressure. But this is the Obama administration model: quietly force education reform at the state level with Race to the Top, a $4.3 billion competitive grants program to strong arm states into adopting education reform policy. Want money from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan? (And who doesn’t desperately need it these days?) Then get with the Obama-Duncan education reform program. If you put the Colorado, Connecticut, and indeed the failed Florida state bills side by side with Obama-Duncan policy foundations, they look remarkably similar. Obama-Duncan are pro-charter school, in favor of dramatic moves like shutting down low-performing schools to make way for But many worry the Obama-Duncan model for education reform extends the worst offenses of No Child Left Behind, which was instituted by President George W. Bush. And most are concerned that the initiatives it is putting its weight behind don’t even have proven results to merit $4.3 billion of backing. Stan Karp, writing for Rethinking Schools, tackled the Obama-Duncan pet project of supporting charter schools. He says: "From the outset, [the Obama administration] equated charters with innovation, far beyond any levels justified by their actual impact. The most credible national study of charter school performance showed that, even on test-score terms, only 17 percent of charters outperformed comparable staff…often while creaming better prepared students and more committed parents." And ultimately, by instituting top-down reforms via competitive grants, the poorest schools will be left out. Schools that are too poor to institute reform, will be too poor to compete. Anne Bryant, the executive director of the National School Boards Assocation, said: "The focus on competitive grants and the decision to provide no increase to Title I means rural districts and children in the poorest parts of the country will be left behind. Those districts do not have the capacity to compete for grants–unless you want to shift money from teachers to grant writers. And no one seems to know yet whether these reforms will even serve the students who need them most. Too bad everyone is too busy chasing after the money.