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Where in the World Is Arne?

By Michele McNeil — April 23, 2010 2 min read

Politics K-12 wants to know, as does Rick “Straight Up” Hess.

Race to the Top started out as a new, exciting adventure with the promise of billions of dollars in prize money to help the nation’s students. And now, reality is setting in—and the adults are fighting.

In the run-up to the first round of the competition, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was a dominating presence, not hesitating to praise the well-behaving and model states (think Louisiana, and all the kudos he gave them for its teacher-education and student data linkage). And he also didn’t hesitate to shake his finger at those misbehaving states, like New York, for not having a better charter school law, or California for having a teacher-student data firewall. Duncan used the power of the bully pulpit to provide states with important road markers to navigate the competition. States, in turn, could use Duncan and the Race to the Top competition as political cover to make hard decisions.

Now, it seems Duncan has dropped out of the Race to the Top picture, like a parent leaving town for the weekend, leaving the states to run amok.

That means, in Indiana, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett is pulling the plug on the Hoosier State’s application, citing lack of union cooperation. In Colorado, the union and the state—which engaged in an enviably collaborative process in round one—are at odds, big time, over a teacher tenure bill. Rhode Island, which had a very strong round-one application, is now trying to court the unions. And the National Education Association is saying a jobs bill in Congress is more important than Race to the Top.

Reality bites.

Department officials are trying to remind folks that local and union buy-in isn’t everything. But they’ve significantly contributed to this narrative that buy-in is, indeed, a big part of everything.

“Both states have statewide buy-in for comprehensive plans to reform their schools,” Duncan said in explaining why Delaware and Tennessee won in round one.

In explaining why he settled on two winners, versus more, Duncan said in a call with reporters: “In fact, there was also a significant natural break between those two and everything else that followed. Both of them have statewide buy-ins for comprehensive plans to reform their schools.”

And no matter what the points system says (after all, 48 percent of the points are about your reform plan) or what the department would like the storyline to be, the reality is states and teachers’ unions are interpreting Race to the Top in the best way that suits them.

Now that the competition’s ongoing, Duncan and crew may feel like they can’t interfere too much in what’s playing out in the states for fear of showing favoritism. But, can Duncan find a way to return to that bully pulpit to try to reshape the Race to the Top narrative?