Lessons from California’s Race to the Top Loss

SACRAMENTO – California has failed to land a federal Race to the Top grant but the grant process proved enlightening on several key fronts. It is possible, after all, to pass legislation the California Teachers Association (CTA), the state’s biggest political spender, doesn’t like.

To compete for the Race to the Top funds, the legislature passed reform measures targeting low-performing schools and giving parents some power over school site changes. The CTA, which spent $211.9 million on campaign contributions and lobbying efforts over the last decade, according to the Fair Political Practices Commission, did not like these measures. They passed anyway, in diluted form that failed to make the cut with the Obama administration, which is attempting to buy reform with a pot of $4.35 billion.

This concedes that reform is indeed necessary, hardly a breakthrough idea, and suggests that lack of funds is a major part of the problem. That is the major contention of the government education establishment but it isn’t true. The establishment has had plenty of money but hasn’t delivered the goods. By setting up a competition for Race to the Top money, the administration concedes that competition is a valid principle for education.

That runs contrary to another establishment orthodoxy, that bureaucrats always know what’s best and that competition should be shunned. By participating in the race for the funds, California and 40 other states agree with the president that competition is a good thing. Indeed, the states showed themselves eager to compete for a rather meager prize. California could have won a one-time grant of $700 million, roughly in the neighborhood of one percent of California’s education spending. But in round one of Race to the Top, the Golden State failed.

“This decision by the Obama Administration,” said Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in a statement, “demonstrates that we need to be more aggressive and bolder in reforming our education system. While the reforms we passed did move our state forward, they did not go far enough because other states were more competitive.”

If California legislators want to be more aggressive and bolder in education reform they should build on the principle of competition. Let independent schools compete with government-run schools, on a level playing field. Let the funding follow the students, and let parents, not bureaucrats, select the schools the students attend. That is working in the Milwaukee parental choice plan, where the graduation rate is 18 percent higher than in the government-run schools. In Canada, which has no federal department of education and spends nothing on education at the federal level, several provinces provide direct per-student grants for independent schools.

In fact, provinces with school-choice programs have seen higher student achievement, particularly among students from disadvantaged backgrounds, according to a study by the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute. The study also found that the competition promoted higher achievement by public-school students. Sweden also operates a universal voucher system that attaches government funding to the student and allows parents of all income levels to select a government-run or independent school.

Teacher unions like the CTA oppose choice but Race to the Top proved it is possible for California to pass legislation teacher unions don’t like. California legislators showed themselves willing to do that for chump change that would have made little if any difference in achievement. They should do it again for the benefit of the students, because it would make a difference in achievement and accountability. Universal choice, not federal money, will help California race to the top.

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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