Will Obama officials succeed in their mission to use the Race to the Top fund to re-write state education laws? The state of Indiana, where a recent down-to-the-wire budget session featured a teacher-evaluation mini drama, offers some clues.
The drama began with pressure from the Obama administration to repeal a law banning the use of student test scores in teacher evaluations. Alarmed, state education officials lobbied the state legislature, and lawmakers acted, inserting a repeal of the law into the state's budget.
But mere hours before the new budget passed, lawmakers at the state House removed the repeal at the request of the teachers' union. The final budget includes a roundabout compromise allowing districts to use student data to assess teachers — but only in cases where federal grant money requires it.
"We had a clear message from the secretary [Arne Duncan] that we were putting our ability to compete for the Race to the Top Funds at risk," a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education, Cam Savage, said. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett has communicated frequently with the federal education department about Indiana's strengths in the competition for grant funds, Savage said.
Bans on using student test scores to assess teachers seem to be the next group of laws on the Department of Education's watch list. States and districts already took note after Obama administration officials used the threat of denying Race to the Top funds to push against state laws limiting the spread of charter schools. Lawmakers in at least eight states have passed or introduced legislation since the end of May to lift their charter caps.
PHOTO: Kayleigh SkinnerJoanne Weiss
The Obama administration official in charge of an educational innovation fund yesterday issued a warning to a New York audience: Unless the state legislature revises a law now on the books about teacher tenure, the state could lose out on the $4.35 billion fund she controls.
Joanne Weiss said the Obama administration aims to reward states that use student achievement as a "predominant" part of teacher evaluations with the extra stimulus funds — and pass over those that don't. New York state law currently bans using student data as a factor in tenure decisions.
Test scores aren't everything, Weiss said. "But it seems illogical and indefensible to assume that those aren't part of the solution at all," she said, echoing nearly word-for-word Education Secretary Arne Duncan's remarks last week to the National Education Association.
The pessimism about New York's policies is a departure from Duncan's tone during a visit to New York City in February, when he was cheery about the state's chances in the competition. Duncan also briefly mentioned New York as one of several states whose firewalls around student and teacher data need to come down in a recent speech, and he indicated that New York's cap on charter schools may also hurt the state's chances at a slice of the stimulus pie.
Weiss, who worked at the New Schools Venture Fund before heading to Washington, said the "disadvantage" of the tenure law to New York could be counterbalanced by efforts here that the Obama administration admires. She praised a New York City program that is evaluating individual teachers based on their students' test scores. One strength of the program, Weiss said, is that city teachers generally accept the evaluations as an accurate and fair assessment of their performance.