A FLYING BUFFALO

John Leonarz:Here.’

Andrew Lees: ‘I have seen a fruit fly, a horse fly…’

EDUCATION

What a difference an Administration makes – across every front. Here’s one more:

Democratic Reform Group Declares Federal ‘Race To The Top’ Contest An Early Policy Success

Before A Single Dime Is Even Distributed, Administration Making Its Mark; Tremendous Work Remains

July 2, 2009 – Following the end of the spring legislative sessions in many states, the group Democrats for Education Reform today declared the federal ‘Race To The Top’ contest for $5 billion in education stimulus an early policy success, pointing to stimulus-inspired pro-reform legislative action around the country.

‘President Obama has shown he is serious about bringing change to public education – even in these difficult financial times,’ said Joe Williams, DFER’s executive director. ‘In just a few months, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has taken tremendous steps toward fundamentally redefining the role of the federal government in encouraging states to take bold steps to reform their public education sectors.’

Secretary Duncan has leveraged $100 billion in education federal stimulus funding, and his $5 billion Race to the Top initiative, to affect more change in state education policies in six months on the job than any U.S. Secretary of Education in history, said Charles Barone, DFER’s director of federal policy.

‘There have been no federal mandates, or heavy-handed edicts,’ Barone said. Rather, he said, Duncan has promoted progressive policy changes through candid observations on shortcomings in state educational policies; criticism of politics-as-usual gamesmanship; a vision for what a real 21st century U.S. education system could look like; and, the willingness to reserve a tiny fraction of federal education spending as a venture capital fund to invest only in those states that are ready to undertake meaningful, lasting, systemic change.

Arne Duncan has been speaking truth to power, often by pointing out in the press that states will be looked upon unfavorably in the ‘Race To The Top’ contest if they don’t take steps to become more friendly. The powers-that-be in many states have begun to respond.

Consider some of these recent developments:

— Illinois. On Tuesday, April 14th, Duncan kicked off his nationwide ‘listening tour’ in Chicago, saying ‘business as usual, to be clear, would basically eliminate Illinois from [Race the Top] competition’ and citing funding inequity, a limit on the number of charter schools, and marginal efforts to police teacher quality as the biggest areas in need of change. In the wee of hours of June 1st, the Illinois state legislature answered Duncan’s call and ended its session by approving 45 new charter schools for Chicago, 5 of which would reserved for high school dropouts, and an additional 15 charter schools for the rest of the state. As a result, about 13,000 students now on charter school waiting lists or in otherwise low-performing schools will be enrolled in high-quality charters subject to stricter accountability requirements than other Illinois schools.

— Colorado. Gov. Bill Ritter took the unusual step of appointing Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien (a member of the DFER-Colorado advisory board) to serve as ‘Race To The Top Czar,’ to make sure the state was positioned with enough progressive education policies to win the race outright.

— Tennessee. In late May, Duncan said Tennessee would ‘not be helping its chances’ for Race to the Top funds if it continued arbitrary caps limiting the growth of charter schools. This set off a chain of events in which the state legislature held a special session and Democrats were freed to reverse their positions against charter school expansion from their leadership (and given a pass from the Tennessee Education Association), culminating in approval of charter school expansions in six school systems on a lopsided vote of 79-15.

— Rhode Island. On Monday, June 22 at a conference attended by thousands of charter school parents, teachers, and Administrators, Duncan said, in response to a question from the audience, that Rhode Island risked eligibility for Race to the Top funding if it continued to roadblock efforts to establish and equitably fund charter schools. On Friday June 26, just after 2 a.m. the Rhode Island legislature approved a final budget deal that fully restored funding for a system of ‘mayoral academies’ that will serve students attending some of the lowest-performing schools in Providence. The first school, set to open this Fall, will be run by Democracy Prep, a Harlem charter operator. The lottery for slots will be held the first week of July.

— Connecticut. Duncan’s comments regarding Rhode Island rippled out to Connecticut, when on June 26, virtually simultaneous with Rhode Island’s action, Connecticut reversed its decision to cut charter school budgets, and moved toward an agreement that would fully restore charter school funding.

The victory was hailed not only by charter school advocates, but also by those who are working on behalf of statewide school reform efforts, like Alex Johnston, Chief Executive Officer of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN): ‘The education reform movement in Connecticut is gratified that this budget averts the tragedy of half-completed public charter schools so that they can continue their work to close Connecticut’s largest-in-the-nation achievement gap.’

— Massachusetts. On Monday, June 29, Massachusetts Secretary of Education Paul Reville announced that Gov. Deval Patrick will soon introduce legislation to lift the cap on charter schools in school districts in the lowest 10 percent on performance exams. Earlier this year Patrick said he was opposed to lifting the cap on the number of charter schools – proposing instead to increase spending on them in the lowest-performing districts.

— Louisiana. On Thursday, June 25, on the last day of Louisiana’s legislative session, Rep. Walt Leger III, a New Orleans Democrat, introduced legislation lifting the cap on charter schools. The state Education Department’s press release indicated that states that lift caps on charter schools will be viewed more favorably by the federal government in the Race To The Top.

— Indiana. The new state budget approved by the Legislature this week lifted the cap on charter schools and allows student performance to be used in teacher evaluations. Duncan had warned Indiana legislators that a failure to remove obstacles to reform, like charter caps, would jeopardize the state’s standing in the contest. These are encouraging developments.

What these small, but significant victories show is that many changes can be made without huge additional investments by states or localities. It’s not a matter of know-how, but rather a matter of political will.

The next battleground will likely be the firewalls between student data and teacher evaluations that affect pay, tenure, and placement decisions, Barone said. As a result of Race to the Top, Colorado has moved to link student and teacher data so that it can more accurately and swiftly target reforms to where they are most needed.

In the time since Duncan began calling attention last month to states that have erected student-teacher data firewalls, such as California, New York, and Wisconsin, politicians and lobbyists have been scrambling to figure out whether they will be forced to take real action, or lay low to see whether Duncan actually means business.

What’s clear is that, based on what happens between now and the beginning of the 2009-10 school year, there could be as many as five or ten states that are ready to embody the full breadth of reforms laid out under ARRA in accordance with the four assurances laid out by the President and Congress, and by Secretary Duncan’s ‘Race to The Top’ to:

— create and implement world class standards and assessments;

— develop robust data systems that track student achievement and allow real-time decisions about the deployment of interventions and resources;

— reconstitute or shut down the lowest-performing schools;

— and improve teacher quality and the equitable distribution of effective teachers through incentives like performance pay and differential compensation. Speaking before charter school advocates last week, long-time champion of education reform Howard Fuller said ‘tell no lies, and claim no easy victories.’ The reality is that the battles waged and won over the past 6 months were hard-fought and partial. It’s no coincidence that most of the decisions were made late at night or early in the morning. In large part, these were ‘proxy’ wars.

The forces invested in maintaining the status quo resisted even these small advances on charter schools, and are still resisting breaking down teacher-student data firewalls, because they know they are symbolic of larger reform issues on the horizon. This time around, they lost several battles in their attempt to teach parents and community organizers a lesson about who’s in charge, to keep them in the back of the line when it comes handing out political favors, regardless of their impact on the education of poor and minority children. But those who resist the school reform movement are going to find they are on the wrong side of history. They may affect the pace of reform, but not its inexorable direction. They must decide whether they will participate, or continue to be further marginalized.

Secretary Duncan has exercised wise leadership and exhibited extraordinary political courage in the face of daunting political opposition and bureaucratic intransigence. But make no mistake, the real fights are yet to come, inside the Beltway, and in state Capitols across the nation.

For more information from DFER on the Race To The Top fund, see our recent issue briefs.

 

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