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Opposition to Education Grant Program Emerges

Ohanian Comment: The headline might lead one to think this should be filed under "good news"--except the opposition isn't strong enough to stop the federal steamroller. It is good news that some districts are paying attention--and not just scrambling for every dime Duncan tosses out. But Duncan will declare it a success. After all, before he gives out even a dime he has state politicos licking his boots. Yes, those are jackboots.

All these districts in California and Ohio refusing to sign on and Sam Dillon couldn't find one superintendent or board of education member to quote? All he can come up with is one hearsay indirect quote. And then lots of quotes from RttT enthusiasts.

By Sam Dillon

The Obama administration's main school improvement initiative has spurred education policy changes in states across the nation, but it is meeting with some last-minute resistance as the first deadline for applications arrives Tuesday.

Thousands of school districts in California, Ohio and other states have declined to participate, and teacher' unions in Michigan, Minnesota and Florida have recommended that their local units not sign on to their states' applications. Several rural states, including Montana, have said they will not apply, at least for now, partly because of the emphasis on charter schools, which would draw resources from small country schools.

And Gov. Rick Perry of Texas said last week that his state would not compete for the $700 million that the biggest states are eligible to win in the $4 billion program, known as Race to the Top, calling it an intrusion on states’ rights.

Still, about 40 states were rushing to complete applications for the Tuesday deadline, the first in the two-stage competition. The last-minute opposition is unlikely to derail efforts by most of those states to win some of the federal money.

President Obama and his aides have been so delighted by the response by states that he will seek to extend the competition into a third round next year and will request an additional $1.3 billion from Congress to do so, senior administration officials said Monday.

Since it got under way last summer, with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan bluntly criticizing school policies in many states, legislatures and officials from Rhode Island to California have reworked laws or policies in ways that have advanced President Obama's vision: more charter schools, better-qualified teachers and a national effort to overhaul failing schools.

Many critics of the administration acknowledge that the competition has produced important results.

"The administration hasn't spent a dollar yet, and they've already gotten a lot of states to make important legislative changes that are a positive for school reform," said Grover J. Whitehurst, who directed the Department of Education's research division under President George W. Bush and is now at the Brookings Institution.

The administration's initiatives have produced some of the sharpest debates since the forced busing controversies of the 1970s. In an October speech before the National Association of State Boards of Education, which he devoted to the proper federal role in education, Secretary Duncan said Washington should not merely provide money to educate poor children and the disabled, but should shake up schools coast to coast.

"Some say we're being too forceful in pushing reform, but I say we need to be aggressive," Mr. Duncan said. That posture is provoking opposition, but most states and districts are going along.

Nevada's school superintendent, Keith W. Rheault, said in an interview that some Nevada educators had initially grumbled about the federal program but had fallen silent as the state's tax revenues plummeted last year.

"When you’re starving and somebody puts food in your mouth, it's amazing what states will do," Mr. Rheault said.

Several states last week worked to carry out last-minute legislative tweaks that could strengthen their proposals. Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois, for instance, signed a law overhauling the state's educator evaluation system on Friday -- just in time for inclusion in the state's proposal.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, announced last week that her union would back development of a new model for how teachers should be evaluated, promoted and removed.

"The big picture is that Race to the Top has focused the nation on the big questions in public education in a way that we rarely have been," said Timothy Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, which advocates for improved educator evaluation systems. "We haven't focused much before on having good evaluations. Now a lot of states are saying, 'We're going to do that.' And that's huge."

The last-minute legislative efforts by states seeking to strengthen their proposals came after a wave of states changed education laws last year, in response to administration prodding. Lawmakers in Illinois, Louisiana, Tennessee and elsewhere raised caps on the numbers of charter schools or expanded the pool of students eligible to attend them. (Charter schools are publicly financed, but managed by groups separate from school districts and are largely free from traditional school work rules.)

In Indiana, lawmakers beat back an effort to impose a moratorium on new charters and, after Mr. Duncan warned that states prohibiting the use of test data in teacher evaluations would be ineligible for awards, revoked such a prohibition.

In California, Wisconsin and California, legislators repealed similar laws that had banned linking student achievement data to teachers; Wisconsin's action came one day after Mr. Obama went to Madison to deliver a speech encouraging them to do so.

California also passed two laws, one reworking the state’s educator evaluation systems and the other allowing parents to move children out of low-performing districts.

About 40 states have told the Education Department that they will apply for the grant competition by Tuesday. Officials in seven more -- Alaska, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada, Vermont and Washington -- said in interviews that they would file second-stage applications later this year. Montana and North Dakota officials said they were still considering their options.

Florida persuaded more than 60 of its 67 school districts to support its proposal. In California, 804 of the state's 1,729 school districts and charter schools, or less than half, signed on. In Ohio, about 250 of the state’s 613 school districts agreed to participate. In Colorado, 135 of 178 districts signed on.

Louisiana's proposal includes plans to intervene in hundreds of failing schools, Paul Pastorek, the state superintendent of education, said in an interview. Those ambitious plans alarmed many local school officials, he said, and only 28 of the state's 70 districts signed on to support the state proposal.

"A lot of people and districts were drawn to Race to the Top initially because of the prospect of money in tough times," Mr. Pastorek said, "but we tried to separate those who were just interested in money from those who want reform."

Some officials in districts who did not sign on criticized the competition as micromanagement of their school systems, Mr. Pastorek said.

"They don’t want the state to tell them what to do," he said, "and they don't want the federal government to do it either."

— Sam Dillon
New York Times


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