Friday, November 27, 2009

Backing down on education reform

One of the most promising parts of President Obama's agenda was the manner in which he and his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, sounded a firm line on encouraging states to reform schools by requiring states to use testing for assessing teacher performance and to get rid of caps on charter schools if they wanted to compete for what they called "Race to the Top" grants. But now, as the WSJ reports, they appear to be backing away from what were trumpeted as firm lines in the sand just a few months ago.
In the spring, when the White House announced its $4.35 billion "Race to the Top" initiative to improve K-12 schooling, President Obama said, "Any state that makes it unlawful to link student progress to teacher evaluations will have to change its ways to compete for a grant." Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters, "states that don't have charter school laws, or put artificial caps on the growth of charter schools, will jeopardize their application."

The Administration appears to be retreating on both requirements. The final Race to the Top regulations allow states to use "multiple measures," including peer reviews, to evaluate instructors. This means states that prohibit student test data from being used to measure a teacher's performance may be eligible for the federal funds, even though the President clearly said that they wouldn't be.

Nor are states any longer required to embrace charter schools to win a grant. In June, Mr. Duncan scolded by name some of the states, such as Maine and Tennessee, that don't allow charters or limit enrollment in these independent public schools. Under the final regulations, however, states that prohibit charters can still receive Race to the Top dollars so long as they have other kinds of "innovative public schools." That's an invitation for states to game the criteria by relabeling a few traditional public schools as innovative.

The requirement to eliminate caps on the number of charter schools has also been eliminated. If the caps are generous enough, Mr. Duncan now says, they might be okay—which also gives him political wiggle room to give a state a break. Charter caps are one of the ways that teachers unions limit competition and stymie reform.
This was big news in my state of North Carolina where we are very close to the limit on the state's cap of 100 charter schools. There was some talk earlier this year of perhaps raising the cap so that the state could compete for the grant money, but Governor Beverly Perdue nixed that. Well now it seems that Perdue and other charter school opponents were right to hold out.
The emphasis on charter schools in the draft rules drew hundreds of comments over the summer, including a letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan from Gov. Bev Perdue of North Carolina, a Democrat, who said her “primary concern is the overall prescriptive nature of the guidelines and the emphasis placed on charter schools as the major tool of innovation.”

The final rules repeat the administration’s focus on charters as tools for school change, but also invited states to describe “innovative public schools other than charter schools” operating in their local districts.

“That’s exactly what we asked for,” Ms. Perdue said Wednesday. “We like charters in North Carolina, but we like other methods of innovation, too. So I can see that Secretary Duncan listened to us, and that’s phenomenal. I’m really pleased.”
The opponents of such reforms as charters and relying on testing for assessing teachers have won out over Obama and Duncan's supposed support for such reforms.
It's no accident that these weakened requirements are the same ones that most upset the teachers unions. Dennis Van Roekel, who heads the National Education Association, has repeatedly expressed skepticism about using student test scores to help determine a teacher's effectiveness, and the NEA officially opposes any effort to "greatly expand" charter schools, a stated goal of Race to the Top. The open question was always whether the Obama Administration would be willing to cross this powerful political ally.

Mr. Duncan insists he isn't going soft. "I don't think there's anything that's watered down," he said in a conference call. "We think it's tough but fair." But even fellow liberals are unpersuaded. Amy Wilkins of Education Trust, a children's advocacy group, said that Race to the Top presents "a real opportunity for unfettered boldness" but that the final guidelines ultimately contain "no incentive for states to be particularly bold."
The whole "Race to the Top" idea was rather minimalist to begin with. As the WSJ points out, the states got to split up $100 billion in education funding of the stimulus money without having to do anything to reform their education programs. Getting a chance to split up the $4.35 billion in Race to the Top funds wasn't going to be enough of an incentive for a Democrat beholden to the teachers like Beverly Perdue to overcome her distaste for charter schools.

This little tale is an example of how Obama won't hold out when he gets pressure from those who might oppose his policies, particularly when that pressure is coming form Democratic interest groups such as the NEA. He could have remained strong and gotten enough support from Republicans and reform-minded Democrats to have held strong on this little initiative, but nope, the teachers unions have spoken and that was that.