In theory, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top (RTTT) program goes something like this: States compete for an unprecedented $4.35 billion in federal dollars, and the ones that win use the money to fund innovative school reform programs that will serve as models for the nation.
In practice, the process of applying for RTTT is a messy one, with school boards, state legislators, teacher unions, and others seeking input into a process that, in many states, has been anything but transparent.
That was the view of several panelists at a Sunday afternoon General Session of the Federal Relations Network Conference titled “Race to the Top: Are You Ready to Run?” For example, Kevin McCann, executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, said, “I don’t know to this day who is really on [the] design team” that is putting together Oregon’s application, even though his educator wife asked to a member.
“It’s entirely possible,” he quipped, “that she got chosen and never told me.”
Lack of transparency at the state level is one problem. Other issues mentioned by panel members include the lack of union buy-in (over concerns about teacher evaluation changes, among other things) and the speed at which applications totaling hundreds of pages must be put together.
“The national timeline we all face this was way too short,” McCann said.
Still, said Panfilo H. Contreras, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, school districts need to embrace RTTT or risk being left behind as other players move forward on school reform.
“This, to me, is a classic example of getting things taken away from us if we don’t get out in front of this,” Contreras said.
The money isn’t a lot in the context of many state budgets, panelists said. For example, New York would receive $700 million if it is one of the states selected in the first round.
“That runs the New York State public schools for four days,” said David Little, director of government relations for the New York State School Boards Association.
But the money is only part of RTTT’s rationale, panelists agreed.
“There a question of why we applied,” Contreras said. “Did we apply for the money, or did we apply because we’re really interested in student achievement?”
Lawrence Hardy, Senior Editor