President Obama announced today that he intends to extend the “Race to the Top” program, which originally was funded for only a few years. States have submitted applications for the first round of the $4.35 billion federal grant competition, which rewards states for, among other things, working closely with unions.
WASHINGTON—While the president’s intention to extend Race to the Top demonstrates his commitment to making public education a national priority, all we know today about how well the program will work is that many states have submitted applications.
We know much more about the Recovery Act money sent to states several months ago, which was a lifesaver for students. As the recession hit state and local budgets hard, the funds saved core education programs, kept teachers teaching, and helped students whose families were hurt by the economic downturn. Policymakers looking to extend or expand programs should look first at those with a track record of success.
The goal of Race to the Top is a good one: to spark smart and sustainable improvements in public education, particularly for struggling schools and struggling students. Recognizing that this goal can be reached only if teachers and school management work together, the U.S. Department of Education encouraged states to work with teachers unions on Race to the Top applications.
The applications represent a mixed bag of responses from the states. On the positive side, officials in Ohio, West Virginia and other states worked closely with teachers and their unions. As a result, their applications include initiatives with a real possibility of making a difference in children’s lives: better standards and assessments that reflect what students need to learn in the knowledge economy; time and supports to help teachers use data to improve instruction; and targeted assistance to schools and students who need it most. In these states, many unions signed on to the Race to the Top applications.
The story is very different in states where teachers’ voices were ignored. In New Hampshire, for example, state officials held only cursory consultations with union leaders. Not surprisingly, applications from such states include tired ideas and top-down reforms that will not improve teaching and learning. In Florida, state officials had frequent meetings with union leaders—but then filed an application that would codify the status quo and poison labor-management relations in all but a few school districts. Instead of innovations, these states offer only the failed strategies of the past.
The common denominator for all good schools is an environment where the adults work together on behalf of the students. Teachers know this, which is why our affiliates sought to be included in the application process, even in states where officials tried to shut us out. We take the U.S. Education Department at its word when it says it will look for meaningful collaboration in the Race to the Top applications. The best evidence of that can be found in the signatures of union leaders, and we are proud of our state and local affiliates for trying to be part of this process.