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.

money matters

Report: Trump education budget would create a Race to the Top for school choice

PHOTO: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead
President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos participate in a tour of Saint Andrews Catholic in Orlando, Florida.

The Trump administration appears to be going ahead with a $1 billion effort to push districts to allow school choice, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The newspaper obtained what appears to be an advance version of the administration’s education budget, set for release May 23. The budget documents reflect more than $10 billion in cuts, many of which were included in the budget proposal that came out in March, according to the Post’s report. They include cuts to after-school programs for poor students, teacher training, and more:

… a $15 million program that provides child care for low-income parents in college; a $27 million arts education program; two programs targeting Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian students, totaling $65 million; two international education and foreign language programs, $72 million; a $12 million program for gifted students; and $12 million for Special Olympics education programs.

Other programs would not be eliminated entirely, but would be cut significantly. Those include grants to states for career and technical education, which would lose $168 million, down 15 percent compared to current funding; adult basic literacy instruction, which would lose $96 million (down 16 percent); and Promise Neighborhoods, an Obama-era initiative meant to build networks of support for children in needy communities, which would lose $13 million (down 18 percent).

The documents also shed some light on how the administration plans to encourage school choice. The March proposal said the administration would spend $1 billion to encourage districts to switch to “student-based budgeting,” or letting funds flow to students rather than schools.

The approach is considered essential for school choice to thrive. Yet the mechanics of the Trump administration making it happen are far from obvious, as we reported in March:

There’s a hitch in the budget proposal: Federal law spells out exactly how Title I funds must be distributed, through funding formulas that sends money to schools with many poor students.

“I do not see a legal way to spend a billion dollars on an incentive for weighted student funding through Title I,” said Nora Gordon, an associate professor of public policy at Georgetown University. “I think that would have to be a new competitive program.”

There are good reasons for the Trump administration not to rush into creating a program in which states compete for new federal funds, though. … Creating a new program would open the administration to criticism of overreach — which the Obama administration faced when it used the Race to the Top competition to get states to adopt its priorities.

It’s unclear from the Post’s report how the Trump administration is handling Gordon’s concerns. But the Post reports that the administration wants to use a competitive grant program — which it’s calling Furthering Options for Children to Unlock Success, or FOCUS — to redistribute $1 billion in Title I funds for poor students. That means the administration decided that an Obama-style incentive program is worth the potential risks.

The administration’s budget request would have to be fulfilled by Congress, so whether any of the cuts or new programs come to pass is anyone’s guess. Things are not proceeding normally in Washington, D.C., right now.

By the numbers

After reshaping itself to combat declining interest, Teach For America reports a rise in applications

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Memphis corps members of Teach For America participate in a leadership summit in last August.

Teach for America says its application numbers jumped by a significant number this year, reversing a three-year trend of declining interest in the program.

The organization’s CEO said in a blog post this week that nearly 49,000 people applied for the 2017 program, which places college graduates in low-income schools across the country after summer training — up from just 37,000 applicants last year.

“After three years of declining recruitment, our application numbers spiked this year, and we’re in a good position to meet our goals for corps size, maintaining the same high bar for admission that we always have,” Elisa Villanueva Beard wrote. The post was reported by Politico on Wednesday.

The news comes after significant shake-ups at the organization. One of TFA’s leaders left in late 2015, and the organization slashed its national staff by 15 percent last year. As applications fell over the last several years, it downsized in places like New York City and Memphis, decentralized its operations, and shifted its focus to attracting a more diverse corps with deeper ties to the locations where the program places new teachers. 

This year’s application numbers are still down from 2013, when 57,000 people applied for a position. But Villanueva Beard said the changes were working, and that “slightly more than half of 2017 applicants identify as a person of color.”