For U.S. Education Dollars, States Must Buy In to the President's Reform Plan

Thursday, July 30, 2009

PRESIDENT OBAMA is unabashed in his demand that any state wanting extra educational dollars share in his administration's reform agenda. That means tougher standards, more charter schools and holding teachers accountable. It's encouraging that even before a penny has been doled out, this aggressive stance is forcing states to rethink traditional approaches to education.

Proposed guidelines for the more than $4 billion in the Race to the Top Fund were unveiled last week, with the president and Education Secretary Arne Duncan making clear they don't want more of the same, failed policies -- or politics -- of the past. Armed with the largest amount ever of discretionary funding for K-12 school reform, the administration promises to eschew politics, ideology and the preferences of interest groups for "what works." Criteria for the grants range from how charter schools are funded to whether teacher pay is linked to student achievement. Any doubt that the administration means business is dispelled by its decision to disqualify any state that bars linking student data to teacher evaluations.

The tough requirements -- preceded by equally blunt warnings from Mr. Duncan about what would happen to states that resist change -- seem to be hitting home. Some legislatures, such as those in Rhode Island and Tennessee, have already acted to make their states more hospitable to charter schools. In California, which could lose out because of its regressive policy limiting the use of student data, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has vowed to make the necessary changes to the law so that his state can compete for the grants.

No doubt, though, there will be pushback. There is a review period before the regulations are finalized, and the two largest teachers unions, with their Democratic allies in Congress, have expressed unease. Some states are looking for loopholes to get around the rules. And there are those who think the federal government is overstepping its role and sticking its nose into state business by setting conditions. Congress cannot overrule the administration on how this money -- part of the $100 billion in education aid included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act -- is awarded, but the worry is that an administration in search of votes to reform health care could compromise education reform. Mr. Duncan, with the president's backing, has shown great resolve in taking his message for change across the country. We trust that neither he nor the president will waver now.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company