Schools in America

Monday’s announcement that Delaware and Tennessee would win the first round of Race to the Top funds put a reality check on the grand expectations for the grant competition’s potential for true reform. While many of the first round’s 16 finalists presented applications strongly committed to the specific grant requirements outlined in the Race to the Top guidelines, Delaware and Tennessee went further to present a notably strong front of teacher union support.

Both states garnered almost 100 percent teacher union commitment to implementing the grant proposal’s reforms. Delaware even brought the head of its teachers’ union to present the state’s Race to the Top application to the U.S. Department of Education, pushing the First State over a $100 million finish line. Many of the remaining states, however, lost points in the competition for lack of labor buy-in. Florida, for example, despite clear increases in student achievement after school choice and teacher performance pay reforms, received these comments from a Race to the Top reviewer (PDF):

“There does not appear to be visible support from teachers or union leadership. The fact that only 8% union leaders (5 LEAs) in the participating LEAs endorsed the state’s application raises a concern about barriers that may need to be addressed by the state and at the local level.…The application does not address how the state will move forward assertively to generate union buy in. In order for Florida to ensure effective implementation of all plan criteria, teachers, along with their associations, are deemed essential especially in carrying out the RttT vision for Great Teachers and Great Leaders.”

Lack of union support cost Florida and other first round states many of the precious 45 points allotted in Race to the Top to union, LEA, and other stakeholders buy-in.  Andy Smarick of the American Enterprise Institute asks what the seeming focus on union involvement will mean for reforms in the remaining states in round two:

“First, Florida, Louisiana, and Rhode Island now have to wonder, “What reforms do we give up in order to get our stakeholders to support the plan? Do we lighten up on teacher evaluations? Do we give up performance pay? Do we take it easier on failing schools.” Second, and related, in other states, unions and districts may conclude that they have a veto over their states’ proposals. If a state adds an element with which they disagree, these organizations can simply say, “Unless you change that provision, we won’t sign on and you won’t win.” … the question becomes. “Which is better: a bold plan with no buy-in or a watered-down plan with buy-in?’”

Despite some evidence pointing towards union favoritism in the scoring process, Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, insisted (Word Document) during a press conference Monday that Race to the Top has encouraged reform-minded thinking in state leadership:

“This is not about a pilot program or a small scale thing, this is trying to reach every single child in those states. And do it in a convincing way….”And so to see all the things that happened, 48 governors, 48 state school chiefs working to raise the bar and have higher standards for students without dumbing down expectation, to see restrictions removed in legislation and more innovation, see folks willing to challenge the status quo where things aren’t working and be not full on.”

Challenging the status quo in American public education will take more than awarding states for victoriously racing to the union bargaining table. There are many reforms states can implement without competing for greater federal oversight or teacher union buy-in that promote increased student achievement and meaningful school choice for American families.