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Teaching Profession Opinion

Dennis Van Roekel’s Happy Dance

By Rick Hess — March 30, 2010 7 min read
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Who would’ve thought it? If you’d told me a week ago that Secretary Duncan would’ve named just two Race to the Top (RTT) round one winners, I would have thought it a triumph and a really important marker. Now, less than 24 hours later, I can’t help but view the announcement as an enormous disappointment.

Secretary Duncan yesterday set the unfortunate precedent that nothing matters for RTT applicants so much as the ability to beg, wheedle, and cajole lots of signatures of support from school boards, superintendents, and union locals. States like Florida and Louisiana, which had bold and action-packed plans (noteworthy, in large part, because they were willing to forge ahead with only a limited number of school districts and union locals), lost out to states like Tennessee and Delaware which traded off boldness in order to get everyone to play. Hell, Georgia (!) finished third. (As one tracker of RTT noted, “I would have gone absolutely stark raving ape $%&@ had Georgia won.”)

My view of transformative change has always been that it will come by encouraging those state leaders with the tools and the support to identify and ardently back similarly situated local counterparts. This requires explicitly not holding up the convoy to accommodate the slowest ship in the fleet, but betting on the fastest ships by leveraging their exclusivity and first-mover status (kind of like RTT had sought to do until yesterday).

The alternative is to make sure the convoy moves no faster than the slowest ship in the fleet. In a political context, this means that the most recalcitrant get to regulate the speed and direction of reform. Obviously, education schools have preached this kind of stakeholder “buy-in” for decades--touting it as the key to widespread, transformative improvement. Me, I’m dubious. Either way, by crowing of Delaware and Tennessee that “both states have statewide buy-in for comprehensive plans,” our earnest Secretary of Education has signaled that job one for round two is for states to sign up as many boards, reticent supes, and union locals as possible. Given that his round one restraint means he will have nearly $3.5 billion to give away in round two of RTT, this is all the more significant.

The impact of Duncan’s decision is already clear. In a press release slugged “Department of Education sends clear message that collaboration of all stakeholders is key,” NEA President Dennis Van Roekel declared victory. He said, “In announcing today’s winners of the Race to the Top program, the Department of Education is sending a clear message that collaboration among all stakeholders is essential if we are serious about improving our schools. With this first round selection, the department also is signaling that states must have collaborative partnerships and comprehensive plans that demonstrate high standards if their applications will be considered viable in future phases of the Race to the Top program.”

The round one results proved at least one thing. If you evaluate states’ plans in large part (25%) on their ability to get signatures of intent to participate from superintendents, school boards, and local unions, states which get lots of signatures will win. Whoo-ee. The problems here should be obvious. As one reform advocate in Florida emailed yesterday after Florida’s loss, the signal is that the state’s very aggressive current efforts on teacher tenure, pay, and evaluation needs to be dialed back. She lamented, “With the loss of rttt today the unions and opposition are saying the bill went too far and we have to pull back in order to get rttt round 2.”

There’s going to be a lot of that going around. Indeed, Florida Education Association President Andy Ford said that he was sick of the Florida Department of Education thinking it could “be a steamroller ... and everybody will just take it.” Now, Ford says, “we can start over and have a serious conversation.” Yep, now I can just hear Florida racing to the top.

On all of this, Education Sector’s very nice, and touchingly upbeat, Erin Dillon asks, “But doesn’t this also put pressure on the stakeholders, particularly districts and unions? With states [facing] such large budget shortfalls, who wants to be the group standing between a strong RttT application and millions of federal dollars? Doesn’t seem like much fun to explain to schools facing budget cuts why resisting some reforms was worth losing out on a lot of extra money.” Well, sure, in theory. That said, Erin has much more faith in human nature than I do. If anyone wants to bet that the pressure on local school boards or local union affiliates to help boost the percentage of state signatories will outweigh the pressure on state leaders to beg, grovel, and plead their way to more signatures, that’s action I’ll gladly take. Me, I highly doubt that Erin’s happy scenario will come to pass. But we’ll watch and see. Maybe rainbows do taste like ice cream.

There were a couple other disheartening developments. For those of us who thought the stimulus package was about jobs and transformation, we were disappointed when that seemed to later reduce to “jobs, and jobs.” But we were told that the $100 billion in short-term spending would be redeemed by RTT and the $650 million in i3 spending. Well, yesterday, ED’s front page announcement of the RTT winners read, “Delaware and Tennessee are among the states that will receive additional Recovery Act funds to support education jobs and drive reforms.” Not only does this send exactly the wrong signal, but the Department touted “jobs” ahead of reform! Sigh... (Update: Please see correction below that clarifies that the ED announcement referenced here was actually about another ARRA program, not Race to the Top).

There is also some reason to wonder whether there was a coordinated Obama Administration effort to dilute the impact of some states losing out on RTT funds by steering extra cash their way. Yesterday, the administration granted a second set of five states federal dollars under the Help for the Hardest Hit Housing Markets program. Is it just a coincidence that four of the five grantees, announced the same day as RTT, were round one finalists who didn’t win? The feds announced $172 million for Ohio, $159 million for North Carolina, $138 million for South Carolina, and $43 million for Rhode Island. One observer on the ground in Ohio commented, “The timing of this is such that I can’t help but think it an effort to soften the RttT blow.”

Those kinds of questions, as well as those about the identity of the winners, are a natural consequence of the Department having failed to insulate the contest from the preferences of political appointees. As Sam Dillon wrote in the New York Times, “Mr. Duncan has insisted that political influence would play no part in the competition. But by choosing two states led by Democratic governors, and by eliminating two strong contenders, Florida and Louisiana, both governed by Republicans, the administration might face grumbling.” It also took less than 30 minutes after the initial announcement before the first observer e-mailed me to point out that Delaware and Tennessee are the home states of Rep. Mike Castle and Sen. Lamar Alexander, two Republicans who will prove key to moving NCLB reauthorization.

In a bonanza for RTT watchers, the long-awaited names of the RTT reviewers were also released yesterday. If this is Duncan’s promised “all-star” lineup, well, hmmmm... I don’t want to be injudicious. There are folks on the list, like Stanford emeritus professor Mike Kirst, for whom I have enormous respect. I’ll just say that, had the list of names been available earlier, my doubts about the ability of the reviewers to fairly and credibly apply amorphous and novel criteria would not have been allayed. But I’ll have more to say on all this at another time.

CORRECTION: Deputy Assistant Secretary for External Affairs & Outreach Massie Ritsch reached out to me this morning to flag an error in this morning’s post. He pointed out that the Department announcements for RTT did NOT mention “jobs;" that in saying it did I had mistakenly pointed to an ED.gov press release from Thursday regarding Delaware and Tennessee. Massie points out that the release addressed State Fiscal Stabilization Fund dollars and that the RTT releases did not include the “saving jobs” language. I’m sorry for my error, but relieved to hear that’s the case (and pleased that ED cared enough about this issue to reach out and ask to have it corrected). Massie explains, “It’s just coincidence that the timing of those funding announcements was days before DE and TN were announced as Race to the Top winners. Trust me--we process the ARRA applications as they come in.” He also indicated that the ED.gov website language has been modified to avoid any similar confusion going forward. For the record, he also asserted that there was no relationship between the RTT announcement and the announcement of new housing funds for SC, RI, and OH and that those funds did not constitute any kind of consolation prize.

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