California Focus: ‘Race to the Top’ won’t get there

Orange County Register, January 26, 2010

As California and other states scramble for shares of Barack Obama’s $4 billion pot of “Race to the Top” education funds, it’s easy to overlook the recent dagger to the heart dealt by the president and the Democratic-controlled Congress to the successful and popular Washington, D.C., school-choice voucher program. The voucher program’s death sends a clear signal that Washington won’t push states to increase competition in the education marketplace, ensuring that RTTT-funded “reforms” will likely fail to produce dramatic improvements in student achievement.

RTTT funds are to be awarded to states that enact reforms, such as crafting data systems to measure and connect student achievement growth over time and the quality of individual classroom instruction; turning around low-performing schools; increasing the number of effective teachers and principals; and adopting common academic content standards and assessments agreed upon among the states. California has enacted laws designed to meet these requirements, which will allow the state to become eligible for up to $700 million in federal funds.

While the new state laws contain some worthwhile reforms, they also contain critical limitations and loopholes.

On the plus side, the new laws threaten some low-performing public schools with sanctions as severe as closure and including firing the principal and other staff, or reopening schools as charter schools. Local districts could use student test-score trends to evaluate teachers. Some parents are allowed to petition their school districts to revamp poor-performing schools, and students in the bottom 10 percent of schools can transfer to higher-performing public schools.

Unfortunately, the fine print of the legislation undercuts these positive developments.

According to one estimate, the sanctions will apply to 100-200 schools from among the thousands of underperforming schools in California. Also, district use of longitudinal student testing data to evaluate teachers is subject to local collective bargaining. Given the vehement opposition of the teacher unions to the new laws, they’ll fight in contract negotiations to de-emphasize or exclude such evaluation. The likely result will be the dismissal of very few bad teachers.

Finally, the parental empowerment provisions are limited. Parents at only 75 poor-performing schools will be allowed to petition their districts to revamp schools or turn them into charters. Also, since the transfer option applies only to the lowest 10 percent of schools statewide, most parents won’t have more school choice for their children.

Widespread parental choice is essential to force improvements in the government-run education system. In Sweden, student achievement stagnated for years until a universal school-choice voucher program was adopted in the early 1990s that allowed parents to choose a public or private school.

After reviewing the Swedish data, a British report concluded that, “there is nothing inherently inefficient about a state-owned school so long as it is subject to the same competitive structures as [private] independent schools.”

The president fails to understand or recognize that government-centered measures won’t work well without widespread competition for students. If you want the teacher unions to agree to student-achievement-based evaluation of their members, give all parents the ability to leave public schools that refuse to do so in favor of private independent schools that do.

The chase for RTTT money reminds one of the line from Macbeth: a tale “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Well, if not nothing, then not a lot.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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