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Education Funding

Has Ed. Dept. Dissed State Legislators in Race to the Top?

By Michele McNeil — August 06, 2009 2 min read

One important criteria on which states would be judged in the Race to the Top competition is the extent to which they get support for their education reform proposals from key stakeholders.

In the proposed criteria, the U.S. Department of Education counts among stakeholders: charter school authorizers, teachers’ unions, foundations, school districts, and community groups. Though these groups wouldn’t have veto power, their support will be judged as part of a state’s application. But to even submit an application, a governor must get a sign-off from the state’s education chief and the president of the state’s board of education, according to the department’s draft of the Race to the Top guidelines.

The department seems to have left off a key constituency whose support is required in any significant education reform push: state legislators.

You know, those are the guys and gals who make laws and pass budgets (including K-12 appropriations). But you’d be hard-pressed to find the words “legislator” or “legislature” (when pertaining to a state) in a search of the dozens of pages of proposed criteria.

Much of the education reform that Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Crew envision can’t happen without the state legislature, which determines how much money will go to public schools and sets policy and law on everything from whether there should be a cap on charter schools in the state to what kind of authority a state education department has to turn around failing schools. Sometimes, the most powerful people in education reform in a state are the chairs of the House or Senate education committees.

What’s more, state legislators will likely play a crucial role after a state wins Race to the Top funding. While half of the award money will go to school districts based on the Title I formula, the remaining dollars will be spent according to the state’s Race to the Top plan. But most, if not all, state constitutions give the power of appropriations to state legislatures (with some exceptions, like in emergencies). So what if a governor pitches a plan to the department to spend the money on a merit-pay plan for teachers, wins the award based on this plan, but the legislature won’t play along?

Even a token nod to this group of people would seem to be advisable. Perhaps when the department comes out with its final criteria, adding state legislators to the list of “key stakeholders” in the criteria would be a first step.

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