Race to the Top Proves that Competition Works
By Evelyn Stacey, policy fellow in Education Studies
SACRAMENTO—In the first round of Race to the Top (RTTT), California placed 27th out of 41 states that applied and failed to gain a one-time federal grant. Now California is trying again in Phase Two of RTTT, a good time to consider the probable outcomes, and the lessons.
In 2009, President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced federal eligibility and competitiveness requirements for states to compete for more than $4 billion in federal stimulus funding. To be eligible for the federal grants, states are required to link teacher evaluations with student performance. That runs afoul of the powerful California Teachers Union (CTA).
“The California Teachers Association actively worked to prevent union support,” of Race to the Top, wrote Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in a letter to Secretary Duncan.
In a letter of opposition the CTA stated, “[m]uch of the Race to the Top proposal expands and extends current federal policies. . . CTA fundamentally disagrees with that approach.” The union concludes that “a new administration can, and should, bring a comprehensive new philosophy to improving our public schools that involves educators and doesn’t usurp state and local responsibilities for public education.”
California duly lost in the first round. Colorado, Louisiana, and New York all passed legislation for new teacher evaluations, despite strong opposition from teacher unions. Even if California succeeds in the second ground of RTTT, a one-time federal grant of some $700 million is not a cure-all for education woes in the Golden State. But the federal program can teach important lessons.
RTTT assumes that the problem in education is a lack of money, which is not the case according to Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) a Pennsylvania state senator.
“Defenders of the status quo, including the teachers union, argue that the problem, particularly in our inner-city public schools, isn’t lack of competition but lack of adequate funding. This is a myth,” wrote Sen. Williams in the May 12 edition of the Wall Street Journal.
On the other hand, Race to the Top concedes that competition is a valid principle in education. After all, in this “race” the federal government urges the states to compete for money by implementing various reforms. The same principle of competition being endorsed by President Obama and Secretary of Education Duncan has been advocated by school-choice supporters for years.
In the current system, taxpayer dollars flow directly to the K-12 education system. In most cases, students must attend the school in their neighborhood, even if it is failing academically and even if it fails to provide a safe environment for learning.
Supporters of choice want funding to be attached to students, not bureaucracies. Students and parents, not bureaucrats, should make the decision where students attend school. The schools, whether government-run or independent, should compete for the money, just as states do in Race to the Top.
Americans are inclining toward educational choice, according to the National Center for Education Statistics under the US Department of Education. Over the last 14 years, nine percent of American families opted for independent schools, with or without vouchers. Students attending government-run schools dropped from 80 to 73 percent and families choosing which government school to attend increased from 11 percent to 16 percent.
If California wants to rise from mediocrity and race to the top in student achievement, the Golden State should learn the lesson of competition and implement full choice in K-12 education.