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Race to the Top's first round sends out mixed messages on school reform

Saturday, April 3, 2010; A10

EDUCATION SECRETARY Arne Duncan was true to his word that Race to the Top dollars would not, as too often happens with federal aid to education, be doled out indiscriminately. Only two states -- Delaware and Tennessee -- emerged as winners from the first round of competition for the coveted dollars. Both have solid, comprehensive plans to reform education. But other states with even more ambitious plans lost out, at least partly because they couldn't get unions and other stakeholders to support their goals.

Delaware will receive $100 million and Tennessee $500 million in Race to the Top grants announced this week. They beat out 14 other finalists in a complicated process that used independent reviewers to grade plans on a 500-point scale in more than a dozen categories. Delaware ranked first with 454 and Tennessee garnered 444. Both states were strong on having sophisticated data systems and linking teacher evaluations to student gains. Both were able to garner strong support from teachers unions and local school boards.

That wasn't the case in states such as Florida or Louisiana. Both had been handicapped as early favorites to win Race to the Top dollars because of the boldness and breadth of their reforms. Neither could get sufficient buy-in from local stakeholders; Florida fell to fourth place, Louisiana to a surprisingly low 11th.

Administration officials argue that lack of support from union and local school boards can't be blamed for knocking these states out, because getting local buy-in accounted for only 45 points. But reviewers' comments show that lack of local support, particularly from teachers unions, influenced grades in other categories. One Florida reviewer, for example, conceded that the state met all the criteria for effective teacher evaluations but still deducted points in that category because the union hadn't signed on. And what was the real worry of the reviewer who considered the District's application "too ambitious"?

Overall, the Race to the Top has had a galvanizing and beneficial effect on reform efforts in many states. And we don't minimize the aims of Tennessee and Delaware or their accomplishments in forging consensus behind impressive reform plans. Lawmakers in both states enacted meaningful reforms -- moves that should set an example for places, such as Maryland, that are still dithering over proposals to strengthen teacher effectiveness and promote student achievement. Collaboration is always desirable. But should it be required? Should the federal government be granting unions and local boards effective veto power over school reforms?

Florida, Louisiana and the District face a dilemma as they contemplate the next round of Race to the Top competition. Officials in all three places are fighting the good fight to change a status quo that does little to help students. Unions for the most part have cast themselves as defenders of that indefensible status quo. Alas, the lesson that officials may take from the first round is that perhaps it's better to lower your sights sufficiently to achieve buy-in from the education establishment.

The bulk of the $4 billion in Race to the Top funds is yet to be distributed. Mr. Duncan should adjust the ranking process to encourage states to strive for what's really needed, not just what's politically comfortable.

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