I’ve been “offline” for over a month enjoying a bit of the freedom that comes with retirement.
On the national education policy front January was a relatively quiet month as over 40 states scrambled to meet the onerous demands of finishing the application for the Race to the Top competition. Connecticut was one of those forty states reaching for the brass ring for much needed monies. Connecticut is in a tier of states eligible to receive up to $175 million if the judges deem their application worthy of an award.
In the meantime, President Obama in his State of the Union message gave strong support to public education followed up with a budget proposal that asks Congress to approve a dramatic increase in ESEA funding – note that it has become fashionable once again to refer to the law by its actual name the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. This has been promoted by Secretary Duncan, who frequently indicates that NCLB has become a “toxic brand” for the education law. Both President Obama and Arne Duncan have been talking up the possibility of reauthorizing the law by year’s end. So it seems reasonable to assume that soon the games will begin in earnest. If chatter on the blogosphere is any indicator they have already begun, and now is the time for educators to turn their eyes toward Washington.
ESEA has been eligible for reauthorization for over two years now and the political dynamics have changed dramatically.
One of the most important changes is that Obama the candidate is now Obama the President. With Senator Kennedy’s passing Senator Harkin (D-IA) has succeeded him as chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee. And then there is the continuing enigma of our new Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. (if you have the opportunity try to get a copy of “Class warrior” by Carlo Rottella in this week’s New Yorker – abstract)
Obama, the candidate, spoke strongly for the need to fix a seriously flawed law, but changed the game by attaching policy strings to the $70 billion plus in stimulus money directed to education, paving the way for a $4 billion competition whose central focus is to fix failing schools and incentivize innovation.
The “four assurances” required for the stimulus money were further refined for the RTTT competition and additionally Secretary Duncan made it clear that any state that had barriers to the expansion of charter schools and/or to linking student test scores to teacher evaluations would have a serious disadvantage in the competition for funds. A number of states made changes in their laws at the urging and with the support of Secretary Duncan ostensibly to enhance their competitiveness for federal funds. These states include California, New York and Massachusetts who apparently believe they have given themselves an edge.
The question for the education community should be “who decided that the expansion of charter schools, pay for performance, and dismantling low performing schools are key elements in the quest to close the achievement gap?” There should be no doubt that many states will be left behind in the Race to the Top and ironically they are likely to be the states least capable of lifting themselves up.
President Obama in his state of the Union address indicated he would seek an additional $1.35 Million for Race to the Top even before the ink is dry on the first round of applications and his budget proposal consolidates many existing programs into yet more “competitive grants”. This trend toward competing for dollars pleases the market force/competition crowd, but has raised red flags with many groups.
The Schott Foundation for Public Education had this to say in a response to the State of the Union:
A clear example that poses a significant threat to the opportunity to learn for children who are suffering most from the achievement gap is the President’s call to launch ” a national competition to improve our schools” as the lead policy frame for the coming year’s education reform-modeled on the Race to the Top and the Innovation Fund initiatives. If America is going to achieve a common goal, more than $5 billion of federal resources cannot be distributed in a manner where some states will be winners and some losers, meaning some children will continue to be denied the opportunity to learn based on their zip codes. We call for the President to stand by his statement that, “In this country, the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than on their potential.”
Competition might be appropriate if the playing field was level and fundamental rights were not at stake. The status quo is that far too many children attend schools that are separate, unequal and horribly inadequate. Considering there are scarce and ever diminishing state educational resources, relying on competition between states and districts to drive reform seems to tolerate the fact that many children will remain losers.
While Title I is frozen at its current level in the President’s Budget proposal, Secretary Duncan enthusiastically acknowledges that the vast majority of proposed new dollars in the budget will be distributed competitively. In any event, the door to reauthorization opened quite a bit this week so get ready.
For a look at Secretary Duncan’s first year in office see “Duncan Carves Deep Mark in First Year” in Ed Week.