RACE TO THE TOP

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Every true reformer should be celebrating Race to the Top (RTTT) and calling for its renewal/expansion. I am not being hyperbolic when I say that it drove more genuine reform in 12 months than in the previous 12 years combined (as evidence, see the Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) memo on RTTT: www.dfer.org/2010/08/race_to_the_top_7.php#more).
Yes, RTTT could have been even bolder and driven even more reform, and no, it is not a panacea. Yes, the process by which winners were selected was less than perfect. Of course Colorado should have been one of the winners. And I agree that some states won that shouldn’t have and many who shouldn’t have won. But as Voltaire once wisely said, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

Rewarding Colorado for its bold reforms is one of many important reasons that RTTT should receive funding to become an annual, ongoing competition. It is insane for the feds to be doling out money to states without demanding reforms in return. We’ve been on a journey of 1,000 miles for 20 years and I’d say that in the first 18 years, we’d made 100 miles of progress and we’ve made another 100 miles over the past two years due to the Democratic party starting to tip on this issue (thanks to the leadership of President Obama, Secretary Duncan and the efforts of DFER and a handful of other great organizations).
Race to the Top was an absolutely critical ingredient to educational progress in the past two years – let’s call it 25 of the 100 miles. I call that a smashing success that should be celebrated, but critics are trashing the entire program under the theory that had it been better designed and implemented, there could have been gains of 30 to 35 miles, and that 25 miles in the context of a 1000-mile journey isn’t enough. Such criticism is TOTALLY misguided.

I want to make the case very clearly that Race to the Top was a game-changer in many states. RTTT catalyzed states and districts to change laws. In Arizona, for example, the Governor signed into law a new framework for teacher and principal evaluation based in part on student academic progress. In New York the state passed three new laws, including doubling the cap on public charter schools. In Rhode Island, the state set into law a new formula that will more equitably dole out money to public schools based on the number of poor students enrolled. It has also prompted removal of obstacles to reform. At least 11 states enacted legislation that requires student achievement data to be used in teacher evaluation or tenure decisions. Finally, RTTT has forced unions, politicians and voters to work collaboratively in ways unheard of for decades. Arizona voters passed Proposition 100, a one cent sales tax increase, preventing $555 million in funding cuts to public schools. In Colorado, we saw the passage of a teacher evaluation and tenure reform bill that was supported by the state NAACP, DFER-Colorado, and the American Federation of Teachers, among others. This is remarkable!

Let me conclude with another analogy. For many years, we reformers were a guerilla group, so totally outmanned and outspent that we had no choice but to engage in sporadic hit-and-run tactics. But just in the past couple of years (I’d cite the DFER-organized event at the Democratic National Convention as a key tipping point), we now have enough power in many place to fight to a stalemate, so instead of looking like the Revolutionary War, this is beginning to look more like the trench warfare of WW I (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trench_warfare) – a bloody war of attrition in which neither side is powerful enough to advance, but both sides are powerful enough to stop their opponents from advancing.

So what broke the stalemate? A key factor was the Allies developing tanks (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tanks_in_World_War_I). Race to the Top is our tank. We deployed it, it totally changed the battlefields in many, many states, and we need to make sure that RTTT and similar competitive, reform-oriented initiatives are not only preserved, but expanded.

Using this analogy, it’s easy to see why the critics are so wrong when they say, “Tanks break down a lot (a chronic problem in WW I) and, by themselves, they can’t win a war, so therefore they’re lousy and let’s abandon them.” The correct answer, of course, is that we need to improve them and deploy them more widely, but also recognize that they’re only one of many elements that are necessary for victory.

I’m proud to have backed (and cheered on) many of the key people and organizations that conceived of, designed, built, and are driving our tanks.

(Sorry for all of the war talk – it’s not pleasant, but we ARE in a war and those defending the status quo will stop at nothing…)

New York ended up winning Race to the Top money with enough points to spare that it likely would have won even had it not lifted the charter cap – but of course nobody knew that, so this underscores the brilliance of RTTT: states all scrambled to do MORE reform than the bare minimum that was necessary plus 34 states enacted at least some reforms yet it didn’t cost taxpayers a dime. I believe that renewing RTTT will be critical to maintaining the incredible reform momentum that’s underway. It is simply too important.

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