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Education Funding Opinion

The Race to Kumbaya

By Rick Hess — March 29, 2010 1 min read
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Perhaps they should have called it the “Race to Consensus” or the “Race to Stakeholder Buy-In.” Upon hearing there were only two round one Race to the Top (RTT) winners, I thought Duncan deserved some credit for recovering his footing after the fiasco of naming 16 round one finalists. Then, when I heard the two were Delaware and Tennessee, I had second thoughts. And they brought to mind my observation from a few months back (and restated this morning) that the numerical marker was a terrific tool for Duncan. All he had to do to get laurels was limit the number of blue ribbons--and now he’s done that.

Looking at Delaware and Tennessee leaves me thinking that all the talk about bold reform was window dressing. The states that explicitly set out to blow past conventions, and devil take the hindmost, fell by the wayside. Florida and Louisiana’s bold, action-backed plans--which reflected a belief that they could push forward if they did so only with the eager and willing--lost out to states that obtained laughable levels of buy-in from school districts, school boards, and local teachers’ unions.

Tennessee boasted that it had obtained signatures of participation from 100% of Local Education Agency (LEA) superintendents, 100% from the presidents of local school boards, and 93% from the local teachers’ union leaders. Delaware bragged that it obtained 100% of the signatures in each category. Is this really a good thing? When Louisiana faced board pushback because of the boldness of its proposals, and when Florida endured an FEA boycott over its own proposed measures, the decision to go with Delaware and Tennessee looks like the triumph of process over substance. If anyone believes that Delaware can get 100%--or even 60%--of districts or union leaders to sign on to efforts to dramatically retool K-12 schooling, I’ve got a couple of handsome monuments in downtown D.C. I’d like to sell them.

Placing this much weight on ‘stakeholder support’ is going to feed cynicism about the sincerity of Duncan’s calls for bold, transformative change. Hard to square this very conventional emphasis on consensus with all his tough talk. Of course, this does remind us of his famously cautious reform efforts in Chicago. Wonder if the White House is having second thoughts yet about having passed on Joel Klein?

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