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Education Initiatives Hit Political Head Winds

By Alyson Klein — June 11, 2010 6 min read
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Two of the Obama administration’s signature initiatives—the economic-stimulus program’s Race to the Top competition and a massive expansion of federal School Improvement Grants—are running into some resistance on Capitol Hill.

Key lawmakers charged with crafting a renewal of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act continue to argue that the four models offered in regulations for the $3.5 billion School Improvement Grants are inflexible, unproven, and unrealistic, particularly for rural schools.

Lawmakers also have qualms about a separate proposal from the administration to extend the $4 billion Race to the Top competition for another year, citing questions about the scoring process and the desire by some to steer as much funding as possible to formula-driven programs rather than competitive grants.

At the least, such criticism could jeopardize the administration’s bid to extend the Race to the Top program through the regular budget process for an additional year, analysts say. Worse, some observers say it might be a signal that congressional support for the administration’s K-12 agenda is becoming increasingly precarious.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan “has had his day in the sense that the last year and a half he’s had unparalleled freedom, and I don’t think it’s going to last,” said Jack Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a research and advocacy organization in Washington. He also served for nearly three decades as an aide to Democrats on the House education committee.

“We understand that a lot of the elements of our agenda push people outside their comfort zones,” said Peter Cunningham, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education. “We’re trying to be very responsive to all these concerns while at the same time remaining committed to the goal” of giving all children a chance to succeed. “We hope that everyone will have the patience to allow the reform agenda to work,” he said.

No other education secretary has been handed such vast sums of money, with so few restrictions from Congress. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which passed last year, Mr. Duncan was given authority over nearly $100 billion in education aid. And he was given leeway to design two new competitive programs: Race to the Top and what became the $650 million Investing in Innovation grants.

But other analysts say some lawmakers’ skepticism may shift as they see the positive impact these policies have on schools in their districts.

“I see [congressional skepticism] as growing pains,” said Charles Barone, the director of federal legislation for Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee that supports candidates who favor policies such as expanding charter schools. “I think there are things happening that people don’t want to see happen,” such as putting in place new, outcome-based evaluation systems for teachers.

And Mr. Barone, who is also a former aide to Democrats on the House education committee, noted that most of the $4 billion in Race to the Top money has yet to be awarded.

Budget Outlook

The next major test of the Obama agenda will come when the House and Senate appropriations committees consider the fiscal 2011 spending bills for the Education Department. Those measures will determine the fate—at least for this year—of major administration priorities, including Mr. Obama’s request for $1.35 billion to extend the Race to the Top program.

The administration is also seeking a $345 million boost for the School Improvement Grants, which would bring the program to $900 million in fiscal 2011. The program was first authorized under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 but received an unprecedented, $3 billion infusion under the recovery act.

Some lawmakers the administration is trying to court in its push to reauthorize the ESEA have questioned whether the four school improvement models put forth in Education Department regulations are sufficiently grounded in research and offer a realistic array of options for perennially struggling schools—particularly in rural areas.

Under the regulations, officials can close a perennially struggling school and send students to higher-achieving schools; turn it around by replacing the principal and most of the staff; or “restart” the school by turning it over to a charter- or education-management organization. Under the fourth option, a school could implement a mandatory basket of strategies labeled “transformation,” including extending learning time and revamping instructional programs.

“These four choices are interesting, but they’ve got to be fleshed out here,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee at a hearing on the topic last month. “There’s a portfolio of things you need to bring to this problem.”

Rep. Miller questioned one of the prominent strategies outlined in the menu of turnaround options: getting rid of many of the teachers. He said that, in many cases, educators at struggling schools have the potential to be effective but just aren’t given sufficient support and assistance.

Key Player

Rep. Miller’s critique of the administration’s turnaround strategy is especially significant because it is difficult for critics to accuse him of pandering to the teachers’ unions, who also have concerns about the models, particularly the emphasis on removing staff.

The education committee chairman has bucked the unions on a range of issues, including merit pay and the need to link student data with teacher effectiveness.

On the Senate side, Sen. Michael B. Enzi, the top Republican on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, has also expressed concern about the turnaround models. He said during a hearing this spring that the four models don’t include a good option for rural schools and rely on research that is “at best, sketchy.”

Mr. Cunningham said that there is plenty of evidence that turnarounds don’t work if they are done in “half-steps.” He said that schools need to employ the full range of strategies outlined in the regulations in a comprehensive way, including extending learning time and revamping the curriculum, to see a real change in school culture and student outcomes.

Race to Top Scoring

The Race to the Top competition, which the administration has sought to codify in its blueprint for reauthorization of the ESEA, has also attracted opposition, particularly from lawmakers on the committees that craft the spending bills for the Education Department.

Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wis., the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said at a hearing earlier this spring that, given the state of the economy, he’d rather see the money put into formula grants, such as Title I and special education, than Race to the Top.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., whose state was considered a front-runner for the first round of Race to the Top, but didn’t win a grant, railed against the program’s emphasis on gaining cooperation from districts and teachers’ unions. She said that could force states to “water down” their applications.

Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., also questioned whether there is enough emphasis in the scoring system on states’ efforts to bolster science, mathematics, engineering, and technology. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the subcommittee that oversees K-12 spending, said he agreed and would look into the matter.

But Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the Education Department, said officials are pleased with the results of the competition so far. He noted that 35 states and the District of Columbia applied for the second phase of the competition. And he said that 47 states have changed their laws or policies to better compete in a way that will ultimately benefit students.

A version of this article appeared in the June 16, 2010 edition of Education Week as Education Initiatives Hit Political Head Winds

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