Second-round finalists of the Obama administration’s signature Race to the Top education reform program, including Maryland and the District of Columbia, are receiving millions of federal stimulus dollars to improve their struggling public schools. But an inherently flawed process does not bode well for the program’s ultimate success. The competition’s welcome transparency (semifinalists’ applications, scores and video presentations were posted online) does not alter the fact that states making the greatest progress enacting the kind of reforms that the $3.4 billion program is supposed to promote were not rewarded for their efforts.
For example, a Fordham Institute study ranks New Orleans’ Recovery School District as the top “reform-friendly” school district in the nation. Critics point to Louisiana’s absence from the winner’s circle as proof that things other than successful academic reform and innovation were rewarded. Colorado led the nation in education reform, including the promotion of charter schools, merit pay, data-based standards and linking teacher evaluations to student achievement, but also somehow failed to make the final cut. New Jersey’s 1,000-page application was tossed out for a clerical error.
Yet Maryland, which was ranked 35th in data quality and 40th in the promotion of charter schools, is a finalist. So is New York, even though the Empire State initially failed to meet the program’s basic requirements and was rocked earlier this month by revelations of a state testing scandal. Both Maryland and D.C., which is also a finalist, have long histories of educational failure. Maryland followed the Thornton Commission’s recommendation to increase education spending by a whopping $1.3 billion over the past decade, but the outlays did virtually nothing for students in Prince George’s County and Baltimore, and failed to put much of a dent in the minority achievement gap in Montgomery County. The D.C. public schools spend more per student than any other district in the country, but its students are still performing well below the national average, despite Chancellor Michelle Rhee’s deservedly lauded three-year attempt to turn things around.
Fordham Institute president Chester Finn Jr. acknowledges that “some places that don’t deserve it are being rewarded. Some that merit gold medals for their reform efforts … are instead punched in the nose.” He gives Education Secretary Arne Duncan a “B” for initiating the Race for the Top competition, which he says has “catalyzed a large amount of worthwhile education-reform activity in a great many places.” That may be so, but why pour additional billions of tax dollars into public school districts with lousy track records while ignoring systems that have demonstrated records of success?