Opinion
Education Opinion

Now, About this RTT for Districts Thing....

By Sara Mead — January 19, 2012 3 min read

In a recent Ed Week interview, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan signals that he’d like to use the bulk of $550 million in new federal RTT funds to fund an RTT competition for school districts--something the Congressional appropriation language gives him the authority to do.

This makes some sense, given that some districts that are leading the way on education reform suffer the bad luck of being located in states that either didn’t participate in RTT, or just kinda suck on education reform. On the other hand, the idea raises a whole host of questions and implications, including:

    • Who would be eligible? Would a district RTT competition be limited to districts in states that did not win RTT grants? Or to those in, in Duncan’s words “states that are less functional”? (And how exactly is that quantified?) Would only districts larger than a certain size be eligible? Would there be a minimum required percentage of low-income or otherwise at-risk students?

    •Do D.C. and Hawai’i get another bite at the apple? Hawai’i, one of the original RTT winners, is also the only U.S. state to have only a single school district. Does this mean Hawai’i would be eligible to compete in a district competition as well? The state has performed so poorly in its implementation of the grant that the Department of Education has threatened to revoke the grant. Similarly, the District of Columbia is, in a grave injustice, not a state, but it is treated like one in federal education policy and was permitted to compete in RTT as a state--and also won a grant in 2010. Would D.C., or the District of Columbia Public Schools, be eligible to compete in RTT as well?

    •What about charters and CMOs? The original RTT included provisions to promote charter schools--although not as much as many people thought. But would an “RTT for districts” actually shortchange charters? In some states, charter schools are part of school districts, but in others they are their own LEAs--would charters that are their own LEAs be eligible for to compete for RTT for districts? Related, some CMOs now operate networks of charter schools that are in effect a type of non-geographic school district. A few CMOs are larger than many districts. And some high-performing CMOs are at the forefront on key reforms. Should these CMOs be allowed to compete in an RTT for districts (and do the LEA statuses of their schools matter here)?

The idea of an RTT for districts lays bare some underlying issues with the broader concept of how we think about school districts. A “school district” can mean multiple things: It can mean the particular geographic area that falls within the geographic boundaries of a school district, it can mean a local unit of government established in state law, or it can mean a “local educational agency” (LEA) and the schools that LEA operates. “School districts” typically do not appear in federal education law, but rather “local educational agencies” (which in many states include traditional school districts, charter schools, and some other types of local educational authorities, such as those that run special purpose schools). All of this is complicated by the fact, in our federalist system, “school districts” are the pure creatures of state law--and yet they are a key vehicle for most federal education policies and programs. And the evolution towards increased public education choice and portfolio district models further complicate things.

My other concern here is around wasted energy and the difficulties of running an effective competition. Recall that nearly 1,700 applicants (many of them districts) applied for the i3 competition in 2010, despite very long odds (ultimately, there were 49 winners); and 35 states competed for RTT ELC, including many that were clear long shots. You want people to have good judgment, but when there are money and bragging rights on the table, it can be very politically difficult for district leaders who are eligible to say they won’t compete. The last thing we need is for thousands of school districts to apply for an RTT grant, diverting district level capacity and talent--already in short supply--into developing applications for a competition few districts are likely to win, and making it very difficult to run an effective competition. Obviously, the parameters of who can compete matter here. It might also make sense for the Department to design some sort of “pre-qualification” process, in which interested districts could submit a short, streamlined application based primarily on empirical data and yes/no questions about their policies, and, based on that, some subset would be invited to apply for the full competition.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.