race to the race to the top

When Race to the Top collides with states' rights, debate follows

Teachers unions, school district officials, and lawmakers have all weighed in on New York State’s Race to the Top application with varying degrees of skepticism and enthusiasm, but few have given any thought to the legal issues behind the experiment.

Last night, students at Columbia Law School held a panel discussion on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s competitive grant program that, in its first round, will award several states hundreds of millions of dollars to adopt the Obama administration’s education policies. The question put before the panel is one any federal initiative like Race to the Top is apt to bring up: Is this experiment stepping too heavily on states’ policy toes?

The panelists included Marcus Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Deborah Meier, a columnist for Education Week, James Liebman, a law school professor and the NYC Department of Education’s former accountability chief, Richard Iannuzzi, president of the state teachers union, and Dan Weisberg, a vice president at The New Teacher Project.

Some, like Liebman, argued that for too long, the federal government has been powerless over states’ education policies because it doles out so little of what school districts spend. Much of that changed when the stimulus package arrived and the size of Duncan’s budget suddenly increased.

“The federal government could say to a school that’s failing all of its African American children, go ahead, we’ll keep funding you, or we’re going to take the money away completely,” Liebman said.

“Now they’re trying to find a way to influence policy where they have limited tools,” he said.

For Liebman, Race to the Top is part of Duncan’s responsibility to see that all schools are giving students a basic civil right: a good education.

Iannuzzi, president of the New York State United Teachers, said that the problem with Race to the Top is not its goals, but the cut-throat nature of the competition.

At a time when states are desperate for money and are laying off teachers, is it fair to heavily incentivize the adoption federal education policies with a hefty grant, he asked.

“States are basically surrendering their right to create education policy to the federal government because of the need to chase those dollars,” Iannuzzi said.

Iannuzzi said that New York State’s own application prioritized ways of removing bad teachers from the classroom and expanding merit pay over other policies that would improve the effectiveness of teachers already in the system.

“When I asked about this, the answer the Commissioner [David Steiner] gave me is: ‘I don’t have the money to do the rest of it. This is the only part I could do. So if I do this part, maybe my application does better,'” Iannuzzi said. “What’s driving policy isn’t the totality that the commissioner will admit is the best.”

Meier of Education Week said she was also concerned about the race part of Race to the Top.

“I think that at a time in history when our regular public schools are losing more and more of their funds, it’s an odd phenomena to be giving rewards for a competition between people not to get better schools, but for the purpose of trying to get more money,” Meier said.

Responding to the criticism that Race to the Top may advance a handful of states but leave the rest as they are now, Weisberg of The New Teacher Project — a nonprofit group founded by D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee — said the competition’s winners would become “proof points,” for other states to model.

“That should create the leverage on places that haven’t joined this race to duplicate and replicate what’s going on,” he said.

the end

A 60-year-old group that places volunteers in New York City schools is shutting down

PHOTO: August Young

Citing a lack of support from the city education department, a 60-year-old nonprofit that places volunteers in New York City schools is closing its doors next month.

Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15, its executive director, Jane Heaphy, announced in a letter to volunteers and parents last week.

In the message, she said the group had slashed its budget by more than a third, started charging “partnership fees” to participating schools, and explored merging with another nonprofit. But the city pitched in with less and less every year, with no guarantee of consistency, she said.

“This funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization,” Heaphy wrote. “We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure.”

The group — which began as part of the city school system but became its own nonprofit in the 1970s — says its volunteers work with more than 100,000 students in more than 300 schools every year, many of them faithfully. When then-84-year-old Carolyn Breidenbach became the group’s 2013 volunteer of the year, she had been helping at P.S. 198 on the Upper East Side daily for 12 years.

Heaphy’s full message to volunteers is below:

Dear [volunteer],

It is with a heavy heart that I write to inform you Learning Leaders will cease operations on March 15 of this year. This organization has worked diligently over the last few years to sustain our work of engaging families as Learning Leaders, but the funding landscape has become too challenging to keep our programs going. While we have been able to increase our revenues from a generous community of funders, we have ultimately come to the conclusion that without a consistent and significant base of funding from the NYC Department of Education, we cannot leverage foundation grants, individual donors, or school fees sufficiently to cover program costs.

In the face of growing financial challenges, Learning Leaders reduced its costs as thoughtfully as possible — and in ways that did not affect our program quality. Rather, we sought to deepen and continually improve our service to schools and families while eliminating all but the most necessary costs. These efforts reduced our budget by more than 35 percent.

At the same time, we sought greater public support for our work with schools and families across the city. We are grateful to the foundations and individual donors that have believed in our work and provided financial support to keep it going. We were gratified when schools stepped up to support our efforts through partnership fees. While these fees only covered a portion of our costs, the willingness of principals to find these funds within their extremely tight school budgets was a testament to the value of our work.

Throughout an extended period of financial restructuring Learning Leaders advocated strongly with the Mayor’s Office and the DOE [Department of Education] for a return to historical levels of NYC DOE support for parent volunteer training and capacity building workshops. While we received some NYC DOE funding this year, it was less than what we needed and was not part of an ongoing budget initiative that would allow us to count on regular funding in the coming years. Several efforts to negotiate a merger with another nonprofit stalled due to the lack of firm financial commitment from the DOE. Over time, this funding volatility has created insurmountable challenges to the long-term viability of our organization.

We regret the vacuum that will be created by our closure. If you have questions or concerns about opportunities and support for family engagement and parent volunteer training, you can contact the NYC DOE’s Division of Family and Community Engagement at (212) 374-4118 or FACE@schools.nyc.gov.

On behalf of the board of directors and all of us at Learning Leaders, I offer heartfelt thanks for your partnership. We are deeply grateful for your work to support public school students’ success. It is only with your dedication and commitment that we accomplished all that we did over the last 60 years. We take some solace in knowing that we’ve helped improve the chances of success for more than 100,000 students every year. The Learning Leaders board and staff have been honored to serve you and your school communities.

Jane Heaphy
Executive Director

Rise & Shine

While you were waking up, the U.S. Senate took a big step toward confirming Betsy DeVos as education secretary

Betsy DeVos’s confirmation as education secretary is all but assured after an unusual and contentious early-morning vote by the U.S. Senate.

The Senate convened at 6:30 a.m. Friday to “invoke cloture” on DeVos’s embattled nomination, a move meant to end a debate that has grown unusually pitched both within the lawmaking body and in the wider public.

They voted 52-48 to advance her nomination, teeing up a final confirmation vote by the end of the day Monday.

Two Republican senators who said earlier this week that they would not vote to confirm DeVos joined their colleagues in voting to allow a final vote on Monday. Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska cited DeVos’s lack of experience in public education and the knowledge gaps she displayed during her confirmation hearing last month when announcing their decisions and each said feedback from constituents had informed their decisions.

Americans across the country have been flooding their senators with phone calls, faxes, and in-person visits to share opposition to DeVos, a Michigan philanthropist who has been a leading advocate for school vouchers but who has never worked in public education.

They are likely to keep up the pressure over the weekend and through the final vote, which could be decided by a tie-breaking vote by Vice President Mike Pence.

Two senators commented on the debate after the vote. Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who has been a leading cheerleader for DeVos, said he “couldn’t understand” criticism of programs that let families choose their schools.

But Democrat Patty Murray of Washington repeated the many critiques of DeVos that she has heard from constituents. She also said she was “extremely disappointed” in the confirmation process, including the early-morning debate-ending vote.

“Right from the start it was very clear that Republicans intended to jam this nomination through … Corners were cut, precedents were ignored, debate was cut off, and reasonable requests and questions were blocked,” she said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”