May 17 2010
Can Race to the Top Buy Off Buy-In? Don't Bet on It.
Vicki E. Alger, Ph.D
The deadline for states to submit their Round II Race to the Top applications is June 1. After only two states won awards last time around, many states were considering not applying at all. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan tried to fix that by amending a leading flaw in the process: the weight given to education-stakeholder buy-in. According to the Wall Street Journal
Mr. Duncan said in an interview that he welcomed the friction between union and state officials but warned against states weakening their overhaul plans simply to win buy-ins from unions. "Watered-down proposals with lots of consensus won't win," he said. "And proposals that drive real reform will win."
In a conference call with business leaders last month, Duncan also declared, "At the end of the day we're going to [fund] the strongest proposals whether they have tremendous buy-in or not." Some insiders are predicting 10 to 15 states could win portions of the remaining $3 billion RTTT funds-but it all boils down to points. States' Round II applications will be scored on a 500-point scale. Some experts argue that "buy-in" counts for less than 20 percent of a state's application-but the reality is not so cut and dry. The amended scoring system may increase the number of states that get RTTT grants-but don't hold your breath for a slew of enacted reforms (well, not meaningful ones anyway).
Procedural matters aside, even if states are successful in getting fistfuls of federal cash, how are they supposed to implement reforms? Cold hard cash wasn't enough to buy off reform opponents during Round I-even during the worst economy in recent history. So what makes Secretary Duncan think that they'll buy in once states get RTTT money? The reforms required to improve American government-run schools-tenure reform, merit pay, school choice, and competition in general-would reform unions out of existence, and union bosses know it.
For all the good intentions behind it, Race to the Top has all the makings of yet another failed grand idea. The only difference is the price tag. Its emphasis on competition is solid but misses the mark entirely by putting some of the most competition-averse entities-state and local bureaucracies and special interests-in charge. Better to award RTTT funds to parents in the form of grants, and let them decide which schools are on track to bring their children to the top. Now that would be a bet worth taking.