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School & District Management

Race to Top Hopefuls Seek to Crack ‘Buy-In’ Puzzle

By Michele McNeil — May 04, 2010 5 min read

In the round-two scramble for $3.4 billion in federal Race to the Top Fund grants, the need for school district and union buy-in—a relatively small, but crucial part of any winning formula—poses a policy puzzle for the competing states.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who in past statements has emphasized the importance of such support, has recently made it clear that a watered-down Race to the Top application won’t win on the strength of significant school district and union backing.

And figuring out just how much buy-in matters in the 500-point scoring system is not a simple endeavor.

Local district participation is directly implicated in 70 of the 500 points, or 14 percent. Teacher union endorsement also helps states rack up those 70 points, but doesn’t play as significant a role as district buy-in.

Far trickier, however, is figuring out how important approval is in the rest of the application.

“Buy-in isn’t here as a separate thing because expert judgment plays a part,” said Joanne Weiss, the department’s Race to the Top director, noting that some states, for example, don’t have teachers’ unions. “It’s a very complex environment out there.”

And that makes it impossible to quantify just how many points buy-in is truly worth, said Andy Smarick, a visiting fellow with the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute who has been tracking and writing extensively about Race to the Top.

“The reviewers can make buy-in a much bigger part of the points system, an indeterminate amount really,” he said, adding that the department could offer peer reviewers more clear guidelines on just how that support should be judged.

Scrapping for Advantage

The second round of the competition, financed through the economic-stimulus package Congress passed last year, officially kicks off June 1 when applications are due. Between them, Delaware and Tennessee won about $600 million in round one; $3.4 billion of the original $4 billion is up for grabs. ("$3.4 Billion Is Left in Race to Top Aid,” April 7, 2010.)

To win a grant, states must propose high-quality reform plans in four areas: standards and assessments, teacher and principal effectiveness, data systems, and turning around low-performing schools. Those plans, together, are worth 240 points, or 48 percent—far eclipsing the buy-in component.

But part of the peer reviewers’ job in judging whether the plan is high-quality is determining whether the state can implement the plan—and that’s where endorsements may come in, at least indirectly.

That was the case in several states’ initial applications. California, Michigan, and Wisconsin, among others that didn’t win in the first round, were criticized by the peer reviewers for not having union support for their plans to improve teacher and principal effectiveness based on student performance. That teacher- and principal-effectiveness section alone is worth 58 points, but specific points are not dedicated to buy-in; instead, peer reviewers use their judgment in awarding points.

In the quest for round-two grants, the debate over how much support from districts and teachers’ unions is needed to win has taken on a life of its own in various states. As the next application deadline nears, states including Colorado, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Rhode Island have gotten into skirmishes with their unions over how to beef up their applications while still retaining union backing. (“Tensions Flare in Race to Top’s Second Round,” April 28, 2010.)

Mr. Duncan sat on the sidelines for weeks as states and unions bickered about Race to the Top applications. But recently, he has played up his message that bold reforms will take priority in the competition over “watered down” proposals that have consensus.

“At the end of the day, we’re going to [fund] the strongest proposals whether they have tremendous buy-in or not,” said Mr. Duncan in an April 26 conference call with business leaders.

“Watered-down proposals with lots of consensus won’t win,” he said in a Wall Street Journal article that same day. “And proposals that drive real reform will win.”

And in an opinion piece on May 2 in the Denver Post, he said, “Still others have misread our intent in designing Race to the Top, believing that watered-down reforms with broad buy-in is the best strategy, although nothing could be further from the truth.”

To be sure, Mr. Duncan himself initially emphasized the importance of district and union endorsement when he announced the winners of the first round on March 29.

“Perhaps most importantly, every one of the districts in Delaware and Tennessee is committed to implementing the reforms in Race to the Top, and they have the support of the state leaders as well as their unions,” he said.

Follow the Numbers

States looking for direction as to how much buy-in really matters need look no further than the 500-point grading scale. This complicated math puzzle—with 19 categories—scores states on everything from the strength of their charter school laws to how much progress they’ve made in raising the achievement gap.

While the notion of buy-in may be indirectly embedded in other parts of the application, it is most clearly expected in three separate categories, worth 70 points out of the total 500 possible.

First, a state can get up to 45 points for securing the commitment of local school districts. The more districts that participate, the more points won. But while a district superintendent’s signature is necessary for a district to count as participating, the local union representative’s signature is not required—that signature will result in more points, although a set number is not specified in the regulations.

A state can earn a maximum of 15 points in a second, related category, which asks applicants to translate that district participation into statewide impact.

Finally, states can earn 10 points in a third category, which weighs broad stakeholder support to demonstrate state capacity. Here, states provide signatures of support from groups such as the state’s teachers and principals—including the state’s teachers’ union or association—and businesses, charter school authorizers, and community leaders. Although a specific number of points is not allotted for the union support, Ms. Weiss said a state would “probably not” earn the full 10 points without support from the statewide teachers’ union.

Indiana schools chief Tony Bennett spent the past few weeks after learning his state lost in round one trying to figure out how to come back with a stronger application. Along the way, he’s butted heads with the state teachers’ union over issues such as evaluating teachers based on performance.

In the end, Mr. Bennett says he thinks he’s figured out the formula for winning—that a state needs to have strong state laws that foster education reform, and union support. Given that, he doesn’t think Indiana can win.

“You either have to have excellent statutory conditions, or if you don’t have that, you have to have tremendous union buy-in,” said Mr. Bennett, who decided not to compete in round two after he couldn’t get support from local and state unions. “The best scenario is both. Indiana has neither.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 12, 2010 edition of Education Week as Applicants for Race to Top Puzzle Over ‘Buy-In’

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