“Meander to the Top: Federal competition for school reform isn't delivering”
Chicago Tribune Editorial January 8, 2012
In 2010, a handful of states hit a $4 billion-plus jackpot in the federal Race to the Top school reform sweepstakes.
The 12 winners shouldered Illinois and other contenders aside in part by promising the Obama administration they would deliver fast, sweeping education overhauls. They impressed Education Department judges with ambitious vows to recruit and reward great teachers, promote innovation and force schools to be accountable for their performance.
That was then. This is now.
The winners are not delivering.
Each one — 11 states and Washington, D.C. — has scaled back or delayed its plans to reshape schools, The Wall Street Journal recently reported. Each one has wrangled permission from the feds to change its plans.
Not one has lost money because it failed to meet its promises.
They offer plenty of excuses.
In New York, a teachers union brought a lawsuit to scuttle a proposed teacher evaluation system.
Florida failed to meet its overly optimistic target dates to hire contractors to create student data systems.
In Rhode Island, a municipal bankruptcy in one community and a change in school and political leaders in another have stalled plans to turn around failing schools.
Hawaii, another winner, wants to delay most major elements of its plan. Federal officials warn that its $75 million grant is in jeopardy. "If things don't change, Hawaii is going to end up in a tough spot," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.
Federal officials have put Hawaii on "high risk" status. Hawaii has to get federal permission to spend its Race to the Top dollars. Here's a better idea: Yank Hawaii's grant.
Pay for performance. No performance, no money.
Duncan's department has been making lots of threats. It has supposedly served notice on Rhode Island and Delaware too. "In the end, this is about making sure promises made are promises kept," a department spokesman said.
But no state has met its promises. So start pulling money. Bring it back to the treasury. If Congress approves, start over. Give money to states that had solid reform plans but finished out of the running because a Hawaii or a Rhode Island promised things it couldn't deliver.
Otherwise, the Obama administration is going to look like it got chumped. No small deal — we're talking billions of dollars.
The administration is preparing another competition for this year, with $550 million at stake. This next round may allow local school districts to compete for grants. Education officials promise details on the contest soon.
Duncan and Co. need to deal with the failures before they dole out another jackpot based on more promises that may not be kept.
We have been big supporters of Race to the Top because it was supposed to tightly tie federal money to school innovation. The money's going out, but the innovation isn't being delivered.
Mr. Duncan, deliver. Otherwise you're going to be remembered for orchestrating an extremely expensive race to nowhere.