The Lessons of Race To The Top – Pacific Research Institute

The Lessons of Race To The Top

Yesterday California submitted its application for Race To The Top funds to the U.S. Department of Education. The state recently passed two pieces of legislation to vie for the funds, and by some accounts the process has already been beneficial.

“There’s been more state [education reform] legislation in the last eight months than there was in the entire seven or eight years of No Child Left Behind, in terms of laws passed,” said Charles Barone, from Democrats for Education Reform in the Christian Science Monitor. These reforms have brought attention to teacher and principal evaluations and the involvement of parents in their children’s school.

The new laws allow student achievement data to be used in principal and teacher evaluations. The goal is to reward educators who are improving student performance in the classroom and replicate their successful strategies. Parents now have some power to make changes in their neighborhood school.

“For the first time anywhere in America, parents have been empowered and entrusted with the legal right to force dramatic change at their child’s failing school,” wrote Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution, a parent union in Los Angeles. If 51 percent of parents petition the school board for reforms, they will get a public hearing and one of four options: closure, reopen the school as a charter school, new staff, or a complete internal turnaround.

Students in the lowest of the low of schools will have the right of exit. Students in schools not meeting the federal Adequate Yearly Performance (AYP) goal are already able to move to other schools within the district, and the same students now have options to attend any school in the state.

These are significant, reforms, unprecedented in California, but they will not fix all the woes in the government school system. The problem is their small scope of influence. For example, the evaluation of teachers based on student test results could be rendered ineffective because such evaluations are subject to local collective bargaining agreements with teacher unions.

“What districts and the state education agencies ultimately do on teacher pay and teacher evaluation is going to be affected by local bargaining agreements,” says Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. These contracts often expressly ban the use of student testing data to evaluate teachers. Given that the California Teachers Association was a vehement foe of the new state laws, look for the teacher unions to fight tooth and nail at the local level to ensure that teachers are not evaluated using student achievement data.

Tenure still applies, pre-set salaries remain, and hiring and firing practices are already defined despite individual’s performance or access to more comprehensive data. The highly touted parent petitions will affect only 75 schools, less than .008 percent of schools in California. The law allowing students to transfer applies to only 1,000 schools, those identified as persistently lowest performing, which amounts to only about 10 percent of the public schools in the state. Priority is limited and students can be denied if there is negative impact on the district desegregation plan or the racial and ethnic balance of the district.

These limitations give the federal government good reason to scrutinize California’s application. Even if the state does not receive the federal money, the Race to the Top process has taught some key lessons.

Money is not the key to education reform and a one-time grant of about $700 million cannot be expected to solve all problems. Race to the Top also teaches that it is possible to pass reform legislation strongly opposed by special interest groups. The process also confirms that parents want to be involved in decisions concerning their children, and will participate in those decisions if allowed to do so in a meaningful way.

Parents and students need the power to choose any school, government or independent. That is already the practice in Sweden and British Columbia, and about to be rolled out in countries such as Qatar. These programs expand opportunities and enhance achievement for all students. If California legislators want a true race to the top they should implement universal choice at the earliest opportunity.

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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