Truce Mr. Obama? Hardly!:Race to the Top = Slap in the Face

Message from State Superintendent Christopher A. Koch

We have just been informed by the U.S. Department of Education that Illinois has not been selected to receive a Race to the Top grant. While this is disappointing news, I am proud of the effort that our state has made to put together such an ambitious plan, which I believe should serve as our blueprint for where we need to take education through the next decade.

I thank you for your support of Illinois students and look forward to working with you as we implement many of the elements that comprised our application. As you know, the Illinois education community worked collaboratively to form our Race to Top application, so many of the proposed changes are in statute and will occur anyway.
We still intend to develop new rigorous teacher and principal evaluation systems, as required by state law, as well as continuing our work to improve teacher and principal preparation programs.

We are still committed to developing a comprehensive longitudinal data system to assist us in better preparing students for college and careers and we are already on our way to implementing the new Illinois Learning Standards, incorporating the Common Core.
Nothing more is needed with regard to the Race to the Top at this time, however, we will be working with you as we move forward with the goals we’ve outlined for driving educational progress in Illinois.

I appreciate your passion for students and your commitment to excellence.

Chris

The second phase of “Bribery to the Top” winners were announced today, and to the dismay to many, Illinois just didn’t make it to the top. I am curious to view Illinois’ application and will be doing so soon. Chris Koch, the Illinois Superintendent, released the “warm and fuzzy” letter above after the announcement from the U.S. Department of Education.

Mr. Koch is insistent on “developing a comprehensive longitudinal data system to assist [Illinois] in better preparing students for college and careers and…implementing the new Illinois Learning Standards, incorporating the Common Core. So is Mr. Koch’s insistence based on his own personal beliefs, the advice of teachers, and the support of community members, or is it based on the potential prospect of the money from Race to the Top (RTTP). In other words, was it the chicken or the egg?

The losers of RTTP were more than just the states. Photo Courtesy: tripadvisor.com

This is an important question and has many implications for all the states that lost [and won] the Race to the Top Funds. It is the impetus for me calling Race to the Top, Bribery to the Top. Many states rushed to develop the “reforms” necessary to win Race to the Top funds only to come up short at the end. While they rushed to develop these reforms many members of the education landscapes’ voices were silenced including teachers, parents, and the infamous union leaders. How are people like Chris Koch going to mitigate the concerns from all of these people now that the prospect for the money is gone? Who is going to champion these reforms now that prospect for the money is gone? Will there be political will in place to implement the reforms now that prospect for the money is gone? For the states that won, will the money continue to be there next year and/or after Mr. Obama leaves office, or will the program be added to one of those failed “good/popular” ideas like Supplemental Education from the NCLB days? Mr. Obama and Mr. Duncan have essentially threw many educational leaders “under the bus” to fend off the obviously unpopular reforms that were adopted to “win” RTTP funds. It is leaving states to fend for themselves to MAINTAIN these systems, while playing on the desperation from the recession and the historical disinvestment in public education.

Where is the Money Going to come from?

Illinois is one of many states across the country that has cut education jobs to balance their budget for the next year. This is a clear sign that there is a cash-flow problem. However, Mr. Koch is still “committed” to the heralded longitudinal data system and the creation and implementation of new standards (which include training). Where is this money supposed to come from? I assume you could probably take it from the Edujobs money.

RTTT is largely reminiscent of No Child Behind. The implementation of the requirements of NCLB came as a great cost to the states. As Diane Ravitch discusses in her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, “some states complained that the federal government did not even give them enough money to do what the law required. Federal funding for elementary and secondary programs were increased by 60 percent in the early years of NCLB, but Democrats complained that it was way below what was needed and what Congress had authorized.” (Page 98)

Now that only eleven states and the District of Columbia is privy to the $4.35 billion from the RTTT funds, what are the other 39 states going to do to implement the RTTP reforms? Are they going to have to have their arm twisted in applying for the “School Improvement Fund” or the “Charter Schools Program?” Having cash strapped states create unfunded or under funded “reforms” is wrong and definitely from the Bush/Spellings playbook.

When Mr. Duncan and Mr. Obama are gone, the states are still going to be left to try to figure out how to add these “reforms” to their budget year after year. The amount of money that the USDOE had to work with was unprecedented for any Secretary of the Department of Education. It doesn’t hurt to mention also that the money is borrowed. Is Obama and his predecessors going to make education a principal priority with two wars, a stagnant economy, and a soon to be deficit-hawk Congress? If no, is the blame for the states inability to maintain the reforms going to be placed on states; therefore continuing the cycle of blame from the teachers to the states/districts? I believe that these questions (among others) need to be answered before I stand up and applaud for Obama/Duncan’s leadership on improving education in our country.

This is was not about Education Reform, this was about Politics

I was having a conversation with a friend of mine the other day about Race to the Top. He asked me to explain what the programme is and its purpose. After explaining to him what the ins and outs of the program were he asked me, why did the Obama Administration have to have a separate Edujobs bill to save teacher jobs? Why couldn’t he just use some of the money from Race to the Top to help save teacher jobs? My answer to him was the Edujobs bill is not about education it’s about politics. In other words, getting back in good graces with teachers and union leaders (one of Democrats’ core constituencies) leading up to the election and subsequently declaring a “truce.”

Why would I make that claim? What does the Edujobs bill tell you about RTTT? It became clear around January of this year that many of the teacher-related and education support personnel positions that were saved by Obama’s first round of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds would dry up and states would be strapped. However, the Edujobs bill was passed in August. Why did it take so long? The Department of Education and Obama had no interest in saving or helping anyone part of the “status quo” without stipulations. This was evident in his threat to veto the bill if it included taking money from RTTT. Barack Obama’s attempt to be “everyone’s president” has influenced his decisions the last eighteen months as president. Think about it. He can placate parents, civil rights leaders, and desperate states by creating “reforms,” while placating the economists and conservative (and some liberal) think tanks in the advancement of market tactics in education. With Duncan’s announcement today of the RTTT winners he emphasized his commitment to asking Congress for more money for RTTT, while many states are hoarding their EduJobs money under fear that it won’t cover through the next school year. Why is he not committed to saving teacher jobs? It has become the politically popular viewpoint to place teachers (especially the unions) in the group of bureaucrats that are hostile to any reform. There is no way that the current pseudo deficit-hawkish Congress is going to give any money to educators without stipulations especially when they are sold to be members of the “status quo.”

The second indication that it is political is the lack of stipulations placed on the EduJobs bill. While Mr. Obama has praised the bill for saving teacher jobs, many states are not doing the immediate re-hiring and the reduction in classroom sizes that was supposed to occur under the fear of being back in dire-straights again next year. Mr. President, how can you give one sum of money with an inordinate number of stipulations, but not make a fairly clean-cut stipulation like re-hire teachers part of an EduJOBS bill? It was not about education it was about politics. Selling the message of “saving teacher jobs” seems to be the politically prudent thing to do leading up to a tough election with Republicans in the midterm elections. In my opinion, there aren’t enough press conferences or supposed “truces” that would make me feel otherwise. Almost everything that President Obama has made a priority (health care, AARA, financial reform, CARD Act, etc.) has passed fairly quickly (with the exception of the health care bill.) Edujobs were not Mr. Obama’s priority; the Obama/Duncan agenda is the priority.

In any race there are going to be winners and losers. While, I don’t support many of the reforms that were required by the Obama Administration, I do believe that what has happened in this program is going to set a precedent. It is setting a precedent for twisting the arms of desperate states to adopt “reform” measures that negate all of the stakeholders in an effort to circumvent bureaucracies. It sets a precedent that similarily in the free market that there are going to be winners and losers, and that the losers just need to “try harder and do more.” It sets a precedent that education leaders not only need to be savvy in pedagogy and management, but in politics. It sets a precedent of a dangerous road for public education that is unsustainable and has many unintended but very REAL consequences.

Truce Mr. Obama? Hardly.

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About mpal219
Educator, Student, Reader, Reformer, & Activist

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