Special Report

‘Race to Top’ Driving Policy Action Across States

December 23, 2009 10 min read
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As governors and state legislators gear up for a new year of budget action and policymaking, the federal Race to the Top competition is helping to drive a flurry of measures nationwide aimed, at least in part, at making states stronger candidates for a slice of the $4 billion in education grants.

Those efforts emerge as a priority in the 2010 legislative season, even as many cash-strapped states face the prospect of tough spending decisions—including school budget cuts—on top of the midyear cuts they enacted in recent months.

Gov. Phil Bredesen of Tennessee earlier this month called on his legislature to hold a special session in January to consider a package of education measures, including a requirement that student-achievement data be used in teacher evaluations, and a proposal he said would strengthen provisions allowing the state to intervene in chronically low-performing schools.

“The whole Race to the Top just provided a focal point for a whole range of things that might have been difficult to do in other times,” Gov. Bredesen, a Democrat, said of the discretionary grants under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The money is intended to encourage states’ efforts to improve education.

In an interview, the governor said the program funded by the 2009 economic-stimulus law offers a unique chance to gain political traction for important policy changes.

“When the planets line up is when you jump for it,” Gov. Bredesen said.

Other states are also taking steps with an eye toward the Race to the Top grants. Alabama Gov. Bob Riley, a Republican, is calling for action in 2010 to allow charter schools to operate in his state for the first time. In Maine, Democratic Gov. John Baldacci is proposing a new set of measures, including allowing student-achievement data to be used in evaluating educators, and letting districts create “innovative” schools that would have substantial autonomy.

Some states have already made policy changes likely to strengthen their applications. Earlier this year, for instance, Illinois and Tennessee raised their charter school caps, Louisiana eliminated its ceiling altogether, and Delaware allowed a moratorium on new charters to lapse. (“State Picture on Charter Caps Still Mixed,” Aug. 12, 2009.)

In October, the California legislature, at the urging of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, eliminated a so-called data firewall seen as prohibiting the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers—a barrier that would have put the state out of the running for the Race to the Top. Legislators were still wrestling with other proposed changes this month.

And in Michigan, lawmakers passed an ambitious school package earlier this month that would establish new state interventions in low-performing schools, help expand the charter sector, and raise the age at which students may drop out of school without parental permission, among other provisions. Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat, has said she will sign the legislation.

“This puts us in a great position for Race to the Top,” said state Rep. Tim Melton, a Democrat who is a key architect of the Michigan plan.

‘Breathtaking’ Impact

States’ applications to secure one of the federal grants will be scored on the basis of more than 30 selection criteria, involving such education improvement priorities as school turnaround, teacher and principal effectiveness, and encouragement of high-quality charter schools. For instance, regarding charter schools, states will be scored, in part, on the extent to which they have a law that does not prohibit charters or inhibit an increase in the number of high-performing charters.

Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, a New York City-based political action committee, described as “breathtaking” the extent to which the Race to the Top competition seems to be prompting state leaders to pursue concrete policy changes.

“A lot of governors, their number-one issue right now is cutting their state budgets, so this is a way to ... [achieve] reform and provide some possible [fiscal] relief, so it gives them a good perch,” he said. “You can’t be an education governor anymore if you’re not actively trying to win the Race to the Top contest.”

But he cautioned that the extent to which legislatures will embrace such plans remains to be seen.

In Tennessee, the statewide teachers’ union has made plain that it’s deeply troubled by several aspects of Gov. Bredesen’s proposals, especially the idea of mandating that test scores be tied to teacher evaluations.

Earl H. Wiman, the president of the 55,000-member Tennessee Education Association, said he sees the Race to the Top program as a “top-down-driven” initiative that won’t lead to improved student performance. Nonetheless, he said, he sees much to admire in its creation from a political standpoint.

“I think it’s ingenious on the part of the Obama administration ... to get all of these states to change their laws” based on the chance to win a portion of the federal stimulus aid, said Mr. Wiman, whose union is an affiliate of the National Education Association.

‘State Revenue Nightmare’

To be sure, budget matters are likely to dominate the work of governors and legislatures again in 2010, even as they are expected to take up a variety of more locally driven policy issues outside the scope of the Race to the Top initiative, such as efforts to consolidate school districts.

The grim economic news for states has yet to show much sign of getting better, even as some national indicators are beginning to suggest recovery from the recession that officially began in December 2007.

“The state revenue nightmare continues,” declared a November report from the Denver-based National Conference of State Legislatures. “Not only have revenues continued to fall below expectations, they are projected to be anemic for years to come. This means another round of budget gaps, certainly in fiscal year 2010, but even beyond in many states.”

The report said that states had closed a cumulative budget gap of $146 billion in their fiscal 2010 budgets, but that new gaps had opened in most states. Many states foresee budget gaps in both fiscal 2011 and 2012.

New York Gov. David A. Patterson this month announced that he was withholding nearly $600 million in state aid and property-tax reimbursements to school districts as part of an effort he said would keep New York state from insolvency.

That action has sparked a lawsuit by leading education groups, including the statewide teachers’ union and school boards’ group, which argue that the Democratic governor’s unilateral action was unconstitutional. A court hearing was scheduled for early January.

As other governors and lawmakers gird for budget cuts, the prospect of a Race to the Top grant—which can range in size from between $350 million and $700 million for states with the largest enrollments, and between $20 million and $75 million for the smallest—is especially attractive.

Applications for the first round of grants are due by Jan. 19. A second competition will be held in the spring.

Policy Lever

The Race to the Top selection criteria appear to be spurring some policy changes at the state level.

In Michigan, for instance, the legislation recently approved allows the state to take over its lowest-performing schools and place them under the direction of a “reform officer.” Entire school districts could also be taken over. Other measures would allow new routes to teacher and principal certification, tie student performance to teacher and principal evaluations, and allow for the expansion of the state’s charter sector.

Supporters such as Rep. Melton emphasize that some of the measures have been talked about in Michigan for years, but say that the provisions might not have passed were it not for the financial incentive from the Race to the Top.

However, Sen. Mike Prusi, who is also a Democrat, said the legislature went too far, too fast, jamming the bills through in a few weeks after the final guidelines for the Race to the Top competition were announced in November. (“Rules Set for $4 Billion Race to Top Contest,” Nov. 18, 2009.)

“There was a lot of stuff thrown into this that has nothing to do with Race to the Top,” he said.

In New York, Commissioner of Education David M. Steiner and the state board of regents this month put forward a broad package of changes that would include revamping the state’s standards-and-assessment system, raising the cap on the number of charter schools, allowing additional institutions to train teachers and principals, and setting new demands for districts to turn around low-performing schools.

New York officials also propose to expand the state’s powers to intervene in the most chronically underperforming schools, and authorize the direct management of troubled schools by education management organizations. Some, but not all, of the measures require legislation.

“It really is an effort to look at the major drivers around raising student academic achievement,” Mr. Steiner said in an interview.

The commissioner emphasized that the Race to the Top was by no means the sole impetus for the plans, but he said that winning a grant—the state is eligible up to $700 million—would help build momentum for the efforts and provide needed cash to carry them out.

“We are talking about a substantial amount of money, and many of the things we would like to do, very frankly, would be delayed extensively were we not to receive this kind of funding,” he said at a Dec. 14 press conference.

Timothy G. Kremer, the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association, said that even as he finds a lot to like in the package, he sees a paradox in pursuing such ambitious changes in a time of fiscal distress.

“We have this stark conflict that is before us, with this broad, ambitious, grandiose reform plan against the backdrop of a state that claims to be broke,” he said.

Charters an Issue

Todd M. Ziebarth, the vice president for policy at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a research and advocacy group in Washington, said he expects that some states will take up charter school measures in 2010, “including about half the states without laws.”

“Alabama is definitely on the radar screen,” he said, though that state’s powerful teachers’ union is expected to resist the effort.

David Stout, a spokesman for the Alabama Education Association, an affiliate of the NEA, said this is a bad time to create the publicly funded but largely independent schools.

“We don’t have money to fully fund prekindergarten and other innovative programs,” he said. “And now, even in this time of greatest needed, [the governor is] proposing that we need to set up charter schools.”

State leaders in Maine are not planning to seek legislation allowing charters this year, but instead are seizing on a Race to the Top criterion indicating that not only would charter-friendly policies earn credit in state applications, but that so would other efforts to promote “innovative” schools.

“The commissioner and the governor supported legislation last session to allow charter schools,” said David Connerty-Marin, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Education. “It comes up perennially, and it fails perennially.”

He suggested that legislation allowing innovative schools that have considerable autonomy would be politically more palatable.

In Maryland, state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick recently outlined a set of proposals that she hopes the legislature will take up to help the state’s Race to the Top application. The ideas include extending the time before a teacher earns tenure and offering “differentiated pay” for those teaching in high-need schools and hard-to-fill positions. Ms. Grasmick is also calling for a set of statewide standards for evaluating teachers and principals.

In Tennessee, Gov. Bredesen noted that the legislation he’s urging lawmakers to consider builds on work his state has undertaken in recent years, including revamping its state standards and its teacher-certification process and raising the charter cap.

From a political standpoint, he said it’s been especially helpful to have the Obama administration urging states to take steps such as linking teacher evaluations to student achievement.

“This is not something coming out of a right-wing administration,” he said.

Gov. Bredesen said it’s also especially helpful to have federal money to help drive the improvement efforts.

“It’s potentially hundreds of millions of dollars. When there’s an extra dollar in education, there’s an enormous amount of pressure to put it into adding [teacher] staff or salaries,” he said. “This is going to be used for stuff that tends to get pushed back to the end of the queue.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the January 06, 2010 edition of Education Week as ‘Race to Top’ Driving Legislative Agendas


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