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School & District Management

Race to Top Buy-In Level Examined

By Michele McNeil — June 14, 2010 7 min read
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States significantly increased buy-in from local teachers’ unions in round two of the Race to the Top competition, but made far less progress in enlisting districts or expanding the number of students affected by the states’ education reform plans.

Those patterns emerged from an Education Week analysis of applications from 29 states and the District of Columbia, all of which entered both rounds of the $4 billion federal grant contest.

Although the changes made in applications from the first to the second round varied widely from state to state, union buy-in increased on average by 22 percentage points, with states such as Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin making big leaps.

At the same time, the overall level of district support and students affected in the 30 applications barely budged, mostly owing to California’s loss of support from about 500 districts representing nearly 2 million students. That negated progress other states made in improving buy-in.

Even with greater union backing, states didn’t appear to garner the additional support by substantially weakening their applications.

That possibility had been a fear of many education policy advocates after first-round winners Delaware and Tennessee were singled out for praise by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, at least in part, for their 100 percent district and nearly universal union buy-in. Such unanimity meant the improvements proposed by the states in seeking the grants would at least theoretically reach all students. ("$3.4 Billion Is Left in Race to Top Aid,” April 7, 2010.)

“I can’t think of many states that substantively weakened their applications, and that’s a good thing,” said Charles Barone, the director of federal legislation for Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee often at odds with teachers’ unions.

Buying In

Round 1 vs. Round 2

Between the first and second rounds of Race to the Top, many states changed their applications in ways that affected support by districts and local unions, and how much of the student population would be affected. Thirty states applied in both rounds.


Notes: Figures represent the difference between the percentage buy-in for districts and unions in Round 1 vs. Round 2, and the difference between the percentage of students affected in Round 1 vs. Round 2. Districts include any charter schools that a state defines as a local education agency. Figures are rounded. Georgia and South Carolina do not have collective bargaining.

SOURCES: Education Week; Race to the Top Applications

Buy-in is important to a state’s Race to the Top chances because more support from superintendents and unions for its plan, as shown by the number of those who sign on to an agreement with the state, earns that state more points on the 500-point grading scale.

The competition, funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed by Congress last year, has become the chief mechanism by which Mr. Duncan is driving changes to state and federal education policy.

In this latest round of applications, those competing for a second time got, on average, 61 percent of their districts on board, and within those districts, 68 percent of local unions signed on. In the first round, those states on average had buy-in from 62 percent of districts and 46 percent of unions.

Second-round applications were due on June 1, and awards are expected to be made in late August or early September. A total of $3.4 billion remains for round two.

Generating Support

For Rhode Island, which placed eighth in the first round of competition, the key to improving union buy-in was transparency, achieved by methods such as holding more community forums and inviting stakeholders to the state education department’s office as officials wrote the plan, said Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist. Also important was having more time to explain the round-two application, which, aside from clarifying proposals and offering more evidence, remained much the same as for the first round.

Rhode Island’s union buy-in increased from about 5 percent in round one to 30 percent in round two.

“We wanted to strengthen our process and make sure the application wasn’t the Rhode Island Department of Education’s application, but rather Rhode Island’s application,” Ms. Gist said.

The buy-in percentages for all applicants are self-reported—and some anomalies arose in several applications when a state’s round-one figures were compared with the round-two figures. For example, in Arizona, the total number of districts statewide in the round-one application, submitted in January, was listed at 633. In June, the number of districts statewide was listed as 616. That makes it more difficult to compare buy-in percentages from one round to another, since the baseline number changed.

Still, the Race to the Top applications, which ask states to quantify buy-in by obtaining signatures of support, make it relatively easy to figure out just how states responded to the challenge of getting that stakeholder support. What’s far harder to quantify is how much bolder, or weaker, the applications became.

One indicator may be how many states changed teacher-evaluation laws to more closely align with the Obama administration’s priorities, such as by tying part of compensation to student performance. According to the New Teacher Project, a nonprofit group that helps urban districts train and hire teachers, a dozen states have made such changes, with eight new laws coming during round two.

The increased buy-in may have more to do with those laws than any concentrated effort to recruit union support, said Timothy Daly, the president of the New York City-based group.

“With more states passing their reforms into state law, signing up for Race to the Top became less of a risk,” he said.

New York, for example, last month enacted a law requiring that 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on student achievement, both local measures and state standardized tests. The state’s union buy-in jumped from 61 percent in round one to 71 percent in round two, and the number of districts signing on increased by a 20-percentage-point margin.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers, highlighted New York, along with Florida, Illinois, and Pennsylvania, as collaboration success stories.

Those states, she said in a statement, “are sincere about improving schools to better prepare students for success in college and careers. Not surprisingly, many teachers’ unions support these states’ Race to the Top applications.”

Florida Tumult

Florida made huge gains in district and union buy-in, but not without contention. In April, after a fierce public outcry, Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, vetoed a bill that would have linked teacher pay to student performance and made it easier to fire teachers.

That move, however, paved the way for more collaboration between the unions and state officials. The result was an application that “more reflected reality,” said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, which is affiliated with both the aft and the National Education Association.

As one example, Mr. Pudlow said Florida’s application became more focused on low-performing schools rather than districtwide changes. (The state’s application still requires participating districts to use student achievement in at least 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.)

More recently, local news media have publicized so-called “side deals” that have cropped up in several Florida districts between local administrators and their unions, outside the main agreement between the state and participating districts. About 10 districts have such written side agreements, and a few more have oral agreements, Mr. Pudlow said.

Most such side agreements specify two key points: Any changes made through collective bargaining to comply with a Race to the Top grant automatically expire when the grant funding does, and the state’s “impasse” rules will not apply to Race to the Top-related bargaining. Under those rules, once unions and districts officially reach an impasse at the bargaining table on a particular issue, the school board normally gets to make the final decision.

The U.S. Department of Education wouldn’t comment specifically on district side deals, but spokesman Justin Hamilton said federal officials would give Race to the Top judges intensive training on how to read and scrutinize parts of an application that are conditioned on collective bargaining.

Not every state saw buy-in increase. California saw big decreases in the percentages of districts supporting the state plans. Missouri lost both union and district support.

The reasons for those shifts vary greatly. California, for example, decided to focus narrowly on fewer districts, with bolder reform plans.

Colorado was among the states that aggressively pursued changes to improve their teacher-effectiveness plans. In its case, that included a sweeping new state law that more closely ties teacher evaluations to student performance.

Partly as a result, Colorado lost some union and district buy-in. But state officials aren’t worried about the trade-offs made.

“First and foremost, the law is good policy,” said Nina Lopez, the state education department’s director for the federal recovery act. She said the new Colorado law helps boost the plan’s statewide reach, even if fewer districts and unions support it.

“We will now have statewide impact, because the law applies to every district in the state,” Ms. Lopez said. “That outweighs what’s a pretty modest decrease in buy-in.”

Knowledge Services Director Rachael Delgado and Library Intern Jessica Cain contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2010 edition of Education Week as Race to Top Buy-In Level Examined


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