Racing Toward Long-Term Change?

It should come as no surprise that we are seeing a great number of states and school districts instituting new reforms so they appear to align with the goals and ambitions of Race to the Top and the overall Duncan reform agenda.  Just this week, Indiana’s state superintendent announced major policy shifts (including a relaxing of teacher certification regulations), Illinois’ governor agreed to double the number of charter schools in Chicago, and even the Los Angeles superintendent is looking for ways to qualify for the RttT moneys, even if California is rejected because of its firewall issues.

Without doubt, governors, chief state school officers, and urban superintendents have been listening carefully to what EdSec Arne Duncan and his team at the LBJ Building are expecting from those who will be a part of the federal school improvement gravy train.  For more than half a year, we’ve listened to speeches and dissected policies on topics such as teacher quality and incentives, charter school availability and quality, data systems, alternative teacher pathways, and core standards.  We’ve scrutinized the details and criteria of last week’s RttT draft RFP, knowing that little, if anything, will change in the final.  We all want to show we are part of the solution, and not part of the problem.
Those in the know seem certain that only a select group of states are going to be bestowed the title of Race to the Top states.  The betting odds are 10 to 15 states will earn the RttT seal.  That leaves another 36 (if you count DC) knowing the end game, but possibly lacking the financial resources to truly innovate.
Earlier this month, the National Conference of State Legislatures released data on the budget gaps.  It is no surprise that many of the states on the short end of the budget stick are states that many believe have an inside track for RttT.  For instance, Connecticut has a $4.1 billion budget gap; Illinois a $7.3 billion gap.  New York posts a $17.65 billion gap, while California clocks in at $38.95 billion.  Even with State Fiscal Stabilization Fund dollars, these states have major obstacles to overcome just to keep pace with previous budget years.  That means a lot of energy spent running in place, when ED is looking for states who will be sprinting out of the gates.
On the flip side, there are some interesting states that appear to be in the best financial shape, where their budget gaps are less than 5 percent of the general fund, meaning (in theory) that public education will face a scalpel, and not an axe.  So there may be opportunities in states like Arkansas, Missouri, Indiana, and Ohio to quickly put real reforms in place and document the impact it is having on student learning.
It begs the question, who will win RttT?  Are we looking for states with the greatest need, the states with the largest achievement gaps to overcome?  Are we looking for low-hanging fruit states, where a couple of billion dollars in education funding can make the difference?  Are we looking for states that want to invest in one major area, like STEM or teacher incentives, or are we looking for states that will be the full embodiment of the ED reform agenda?  Are we looking for states that are willing to “match” federal funding with state and private dollars to spur innovation and improvement, or are we looking for those states extending the most aggressive hand?
And equally important, will the Indianas and Illinoises of the world continue with their reform agendas if they do not get added federal funding?  We all want to believe that these proposals and changes are being offered because state decisionmakers see them as in the best interests of the schools and the students.  But the cynic in Eduflack wonders how many are acting to give their states “curb appeal” as ED starts shopping for a home for more than $4 billion in new federal education funding.  Will Illinois’ legislature fund the doubling of charter schools in Chicago without a check from the feds?  Will Indiana’s state superintendent be able to move forward with his reform agenda if the Hoosier State is a spectator, and not a participant in the great Race?  If the core standards movement doesn’t gain steam, will anyone other than RttT states endorse them?
Ultimately, programs like RttT are designed to model what is possible and spur innovation across the board. One expects RttT states to be incubators where the remaining members of our great union can see what is possible and what can work for them.  We also expect those RttT states to continue their programs well after the federal funding spigot is turned off.  But will that be the case?  At the end of the day, will states who are not Race states change, without the financial incentive to do so?  
One hopes they will, but history tells us that status quo education is status quo for a reason.  It is far easier.

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