Race to the Top, if you want

President Obama’s education program lacks muscle.

By Liat Spiro

In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks praised the Obama administration’s plan for education reform as a “Quiet Revolution.” Unfortunately, it is too quiet to be revolutionary. Having spent considerable time at the U of C and in Chicago, both Barack Obama and Brooks are bringing a distinctly Chicago-style perspective to this issue. And that may blindside them to one major flaw in Education Secretary (and former chief of Chicago Public Schools) Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top plan: It’s voluntary.

In Race to the Top, states choose to compete in hopes of securing a share of the $4.3 billion allocated to improving public education. The competition entails both adhering to fixed eligibility requirements and adopting recommended measures, including linking student performance data to teachers, creating more paths into the teaching profession, encouraging the growth of charter schools, and accepting multi-state testing standards.

Writing from a desk in Burton-Judson, this criticism appears a little ridiculous. Who wouldn’t support a better public education system? Who would deny that competition fosters innovation and improvement? Obama’s (and for that matter, Duncan’s) Chicago experiences would most likely confirm a belief in the universality of the goal and a consensus on the method to achieve it.

Importantly, though, the people for whom Obama worked hard to secure essential rights and public services as a community organizer already agreed that they needed them. Having been on the lowest rung of the socioeconomic ladder for so long, urban communities have come to realize the power of the ballot, the college diploma, and the health insurance card to improve their lives.

Consequently, Obama posited that all Americans recognize the urgent need for a good public education system. Not so. Nevertheless, Obama formulated his plans based on this assumption. His Race to the Top education reform proposes great measures, but, unless supported by state governments, has no teeth. Structural changes and performance standards are entirely optional. Trusting state governments to act rationally, Obama assumed that they would compete to meet as many of Arne Duncan’s guidelines as possible to gain federal funding.

But many state governments reflect the “Don’t Tread on Me” or anti-intellectual opinions of their constituents (in opposition to offering higher level math classes, my middle school principal told a group of parents, “Duh, like any of them are going to be rocket scientists.”). In full bravado, they would rather reject the funding in the name of less regulation and federal government intervention. Additionally, many of the citizens of these states are only recently falling out of the middle class and into poverty. They haven’t had decades to experience the urgent need for good education. But if nothing is done to bolster Obama’s measures and means, they will.

Don’t get me wrong. Arne Duncan has a lot of good ideas. For example, his plan encourages states to adhere to multi-state testing standards instead of the state-by-state standards set forth by No Child Left Behind. The state-by-state basis allowed huge discrepancies in test difficulty, enabling many states like Arizona to dishonestly scrape by. Yet, once again, implementing multi-state testing standards is optional. For years, Arizona legislators have opposed regional and national environmental, gun control (Brady Bill), and health plans (Medicaid). Why should Obama expect Arizona legislators to embrace better education standards? He shouldn’t. And he should still anticipate getting shortchanged in another way.

Shockingly enough, Arizona has agreed to compete in Duncan’s Race to the Top plan. I predict that Arizona will continue to do what it and numerous other traditionally red states have done since education reform became a priority: complete all of the meaningless measures while balking at true change. This way, they could get a little money while avoiding any reform whatsoever. According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s 2007 Leaders and Laggards report, states such as Arizona, Alabama, and Georgia share good grades in “data quality” and abysmal grades in “truth in advertising about student proficiency,” “academic achievement,” and “postsecondary and work force readiness.” Good data collection mechanisms don’t amount to very much if the data are never analyzed and applied to improving schools. As was the case with civil rights before it, education reform in many red states is only a matter of avoiding flagrant transgressions and enacting menial improvements because, at the root of it, the constituents don’t value education nearly as much as they hate taxing, spending, and Washington.

To its credit, the plan contains two enforcement methods. First, by virtue of its being a competition, the states that do not demonstrate a high degree of activity will probably not receive funding. Second, the Race to the Top dictates that winning states submit annual progress reports with the condition that inadequate improvement could lead to revocation of funding. Yet, these conditions, while commendable, only ensure against wasting taxpayer dollars. Unwilling to adopt comprehensive reform, the states that never entered the competition, lose during the competition, or are expelled from the winners’ circle will not benefit from the administration’s focus on bringing positive change to public education and the budget allotted for it.

Obama didn’t fully realize this. Worse yet, he is willing to compromise as he learns more. Favoring charter schools, for example, means ceding all quality control while still providing funding. A community organizer works inch by inch, incrementally improving his or her community. A community organizer learns to compromise early and often. But Obama is a community organizer no more.

Obama would do well to learn from the legislative victories and failures of Democratic presidents who have hailed from the South and West: LBJ, Carter, and Clinton. The lessons of those presidents’ terms: go big and get tough, or else. Compromise accomplishes little. Instead of relying on governors and state legislatures, the federal government itself should pursue the goals outlined in the Race to the Top. Sometimes you just have to do the right thing and take the more ignorant or prejudiced parts of this country, kicking and screaming, along for the ride. They won’t regret it.

— Liat Spiro is a second-year in the College.