New Governors in the Race

Undoubtedly, much of the next few days will be spent dissecting yesterday’s off-year elections and their greater meaning for healthcare reform, the 2010 congressional races, and the 2012 presidential campaigns.  What does it mean for Republicans to take back the Virginia governor’s seat?  How painful will the Democrats’ gubernatorial loss in New Jersey be?  Why was the NYC mayor’s race closer than most expected?  These are all questions that will (and already have) been raised in the past 12 hours.

But Eduflack has a far more specific question to ask.  How do changes in executives in the Old Dominion and the Garden State impact Race to the Top?  It is no secret that both New Jersey and Virginia and busily working on their RttT applications, most likely planning on submitting their prose to the U.S. Department of Education as part of Phase I submissions in early January 2010.  Most likely, the respective state departments of education have already invested hundreds of staff hours to prepare their applications, even while we wait on the final RttT RFP to be released by ED later this month.  And they have carefully negotiated the support of the governor’s office, the chief state school officer, the state board of education, and the teachers’ unions to put as unified a plan forward as humanly possible.
So what happens when the governorship changes party, and thus shifts priority?  Clearly, Virginia Gov.-elect Bob McDonnell has a very different approach to school improvement than current Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine, particularly with regard to charter schools.  New Jersey’s recent victor, Chris Christie, differs with NJ Gov. Jon Corzine in just about every policy way.  McDonnell and Christie will be bringing in new secretaries of education and will be working to get their own people on state boards and in other positions of authority.  And neither is going to have the NEA or the AFT on their call list over the next few months.
When it comes to RttT, does Corzine’s education team sit down with Christie’s transition team to make sure the new governor is on board when it comes to the state application? How about Kaine and McDonnell?  Both incoming Republican governors will be wholly responsible for implementing the Race plans (as they are four-year grants slated to begin soon after both men take office).  As such, will they be given any input into the grant’s final development, or will they be forced to live with whatever plan is put forward by their predecessors?
We’d like to believe that Kaine/McDonnell and Corzine/Christie can work together on formulating their Race applications, or at least agree on the broad strokes.  But the cynic in me knows that that will never happen, and that’s a cryin’ shame.  I’m guessing that Race isn’t high on the list of either outgoing governor’s to-do list, leaving it to the folks in his respective SEA.  And neither will be looking to do his successor any favors.  So both Virginia and New Jersey will move full steam ahead with their apps, doing what they intended and doing what aligns with the last four years of policy in their respective states, and not the next four years.  Of all the issues on the table, McDonnell and Christie likely won’t raise Race as a major transition issue (though they should, when one considers the financial implications of meeting grant requirements that move well beyond the dollars coming from ED).
That being the case, is ED already starting to think about how they will deal with proposed changes to Race priorities after applications have been submitted or even approved?  Beyond these two states, what happens if new governors have new ideas for how Race money can be spent after the 2010 elections?  What happens if state legislatures have major changes in demographics next year?   What happens if more governors win the right to appoint their own state boards of education? 
In my home state of Virginia, for instance, charter schools remain a puzzle wrapped in an enigma.  On paper, the Old Dominion has one of the best charter school laws in the nation, with no caps, no restrictions, and basically unfettered opportunity to create such alternatives across the state.  In practice, though, charter opponents just choose not to enforce the spirit of the law.  Only a handful of charters exist across the state, with state and local officials finding ways to stymie their growth and establishment.  
Race makes clear that charter schools are a key component to the federal plan for school improvement and turnaround.  ED officials expect significant dollars to go to the cultivation of a strong public charter school network.  And Virginia Gov.-elect McDonnell has made charters a centerpiece of his K-12 education agenda.  So if the Kaine team chooses to overlook charters in their Race app (other than emphasizing the openness of the current state law and how it meets RttT provisions), does McDonnell and his incoming team have the opportunity to make adjustments to throw a greater spotlight on charter development in Virginia?  Will the incoming governors have to honor the spirit of the state’s Race application or the letter? 
Based on the timetables, McDonnell and Christie will likely be given no opportunity to impact their state’s Race applications.  Those are in process now, and few have the heart (after tough elections in both states) to open things back up and start over, particularly with a team that has just put them out of a job.  But both incoming governors will be responsible for distributing Race money to school districts across the state, and both will be responsible for determining how the state spends their dollars on the standards, assessments, and accountability called for in the grant. 
Both New Jersey and Virginia made marked shifts in their executive leadership last evening, both overall and with regard to public education (particularly K-12).  What’s left to be seen is how the rhetoric of the last year will translate into the policies of 2010, and whether either wants to start one of their first fights on the topic of education and the spending of federal ed dollars.  If they do, charters are likely to be the first battlefield, with teacher incentives (and a showdown with the teachers’ unions who fought so hard to defeat them this fall) coming quickly on its heels.  Let the fireworks begin!

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