Today, the 16 finalists for a share of $4 billion in federal funding for education reform will find out if they’ve been selected as first-round winners in the Race to the Top grants competition. Fewer than 10 states are expected to celebrate, while most of the rest will scramble for round-two funding.
While pundits focus on the horse race, this dash for cash isn’t the whole story. Even states that lose this race have already won huge victories in education reform.
This competition has spurred dramatic shifts in political will, well before the first funds have been awarded. To be competitive, state lawmakers quickly passed legislation on issues that had been impenetrable barriers to reform. In California, legislators removed a legal firewall that expressly prohibited the use of student-achievement data to evaluate educators. In Washington state, a law that blocked the state education agency from intervening in low-performing schools finally toppled. In states such as Tennessee and Illinois, laws limiting the number of charter schools were eased or lifted.
The magnitude of these legislative shifts has been as breathtaking as the pace, demonstrating yet again that when it comes to improving schools, our most essential resource is political will. But what exactly caused so much change so quickly? First, the U.S. Department of Education’s policy itself is a refreshing change. Money isn’t being doled out equally, and it won’t go, more perversely, to states that have the worst schools but no plans for change. Funding (up to $700 million per state) will only go to states that have shown they’re on the path to reform. Second, tight timelines coupled with the dire shape of most state budgets create added pressure.
A third reason the Race to the Top strategy is proving to be so effective is that it’s a two-round competition. That provides states that don’t win in round one a second chance to leverage tougher reforms, and it keeps the pressure on the 10 states that haven’t yet applied. Many states are viewing failure to make the cut in round one as a wake-up call.
Finally, in states that had the most dramatic shifts in policy, the role played by civic leaders working through education advocacy organizations was as significant as that of policymakers. In some states, like Florida, Illinois, and Tennessee, education reform coalitions had ready agendas that closely aligned with the Race to the Top guidelines. For example, the group Advance Illinois, launched in 2008 by a powerful coalition of civic leaders with the theme “we can do better,” helped create the state’s legislative strategy that landed it in the first-round finals. Tennessee SCORE, a recently formed civic coalition, was also ready to help make Tennessee a finalist.
In other states, advocates intensified the competition by consistently telling their state leaders how they were falling short compared with other states. When that didn’t work, they told the media.
Even in states that didn’t make the finals, advocacy groups helped drive key reform issues. In California, EdVoice, a group formed by the state’s leading education philanthropists, drafted the legislation to change the data firewall considered a barrier to the state’s chances of winning. In Connecticut, ConnCAN has been a relentless voice arguing that the state needs to do more to leverage this opportunity. This month, ConnCAN brought hundreds of people to the state capital to rally for its legislative proposal to make Connecticut competitive in the second round of the Race to the Top.
The billions of economic-stimulus dollars flowing into education are exciting, especially in a tough economy, but this competition reminds us that it takes more than money to change public institutions. Many of the policy changes enacted because of this race were issues that just a year ago seemed politically intractable. These accomplishments alone deserve celebration. Efforts such as increasing accountability and transparency, ensuring teacher quality, closing achievement gaps, and giving families quality options for schooling are all policies that require adults to be a little uncomfortable so that kids can get what they need.
The good news is that across the country, civic groups are making a huge difference in improving education policy in their states. These leaders are proving that through strategic and relentless advocacy, they can change political will. As the race continues, theirs will be the voices saying that we can do more to ensure that all students have great schools.
A version of this article appeared in the April 07, 2010 edition of Education Week