Racing for Education Dollars

The California Legislature and Governor Schwarzenegger did cartwheels last week to pass education legislation that is opposed in part or whole by virtually every education interest group in the state. The public rationale for this seemingly odd behavior is that the new statutes would make the state eligible to compete for up to $700 million in federal aid.

Indeed, schools need cash. Budget shortfalls this year cost the schools $2.7 billion, and additional shortfalls loom in both this and next year's budgets. But the state spends just shy of $70 billion on public education, and the federal "Race to the Top" program won't begin to backfill the coffers. How does the federal government gain such enormous leverage for so little cash? The answer rests on a long-building sea change in educational politics.

For decades, public education enjoyed high public confidence and trust. Like the children in Lake Wobegon, all the schools were thought to be above average. But beginning in earnest in the 1980s, declarations of confidence were replaced by inspection of results and consequences for not attaining them. The 1960s liberal mantra, "all children can learn," morphed into standards, test scores, and the expectation that public schools would educate children from the most challenging circumstances to a high standard.

Race to the Top adopts a managerial logic that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan used as superintendent in Chicago: Lots of student progress data. Relentless focus on test scores. Closing and reorganizing the lowest performing schools. Linking student performance to teacher evaluation. Bringing in high quality charter operators. Giving parents the choice to transfer their children from schools labeled as failing.

This logic permeates the rules for Duncan's attempt to turnaround underperforming schools. Unlike other federal education programs that are allocated mostly by formula, Race to the Top is a competition. States give themselves an edge by creating policies that follow Duncan's reform path, unproven though it is. (Closing and reopening schools in Chicago, for example, has not met with great success.)

So far, most states have created legislation that would make them eligible. New York may be a large-state exception. And some states, such Colorado, are actively campaigning as enthusiastic participants. In California, more than 750 districts, county offices and charter school operators have said they will participate. These include Los Angeles Unified and seven more of the ten largest districts in the state.

This race for dollars has long-term importance for two reasons.

First, it is a precursor to an even larger change in federal policy that will be debated this year and next. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was known as No Child Left Behind during the Bush administration, is the national government's most expensive and most comprehensive education law. Since 1964, ESEA/NCLB has pumped billions of dollars a year into California public schools. Duncan's logic about how to fix things is sure to spill over.

While the allocation of ESEA/NCLB funds is driven by the numbers of low income students rather than a competition, the Department of Education possesses vast regulatory powers that would allow it to bring in many of the Race to the Top elements, including requirements for drastic intervention for failing schools. Thus far, the Department has provided its broadest signal that states will be encouraged to adopt high common standards. While not a national curriculum, the notion of common standards, currently supported by the National Governors' Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, take a large step in that direction.

Second, the Race to the Top has shuffled the deck of educational politics. The California Teachers Association sustained a rare legislative loss and a bit of a rebellion in its own ranks. The CTA fought hard against the legislation, it urged its locals not to sign on to school district applications, but John Fensterwald reports at least 115 did.

But the CTA legislative defeat is not all that it appears. Provisions for moving teachers from underperforming schools and linking teacher compensation to performance are all subject to collective bargaining. By linking teaching performance and resource allocation, the Race to the Top has, in effect, broadened the scope of bargaining and linked it to discussions of student achievement.

Private money in the form of philanthropy came out a big winner. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is an integral supporter of Duncan's policies. The advocacy group EdVoice, which backed the bill, has the support of Netflix founder Reed Hastings, philanthropist Eli Broad, and Gap founder Donald Fisher. These three are also supporting state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, in her campaign to become California's state school superintendent.

Organized parent groups have also emerged as more powerful. The new legislation promises school choice to parents, and it gives them the capacity to trigger school reorganization.

Foundation support for ideas, cash for campaigns, and organized grassroots parents change the dynamics of Democratic Party politics and may lead to some interesting primary election contests.

So, the Race to the Top is not just a race for dollars; it's a contest for political dominance and for the ideas that are likely to govern education for a decade.