Marcus Winters: Rise to the Top program prioritizes reform

Recently, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg threatened to sue the state legislature if it did not fund charter and public schools equally, promised to close the lowest-performing 10 percent of the city's public schools, and ordered the city schools chancellor, Joel Klein, to essentially ignore the state legislature's ban on using student test scores when evaluating teachers for tenure. That's an aggressive stance, even by the high standard already set by his administration in recent years.

Tellingly, Bloomberg wasn't in City Hall nor at the state capital in Albany when he laid out this uncompromising platform. He was in Washington, D.C., appearing at an event with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

The motivation for his broad approach to education reform, he said in his speech, was that it would help his state compete for more than $150 million under the Obama administration's Race to the Top program.

Race to the Top is a grant competition being run by the U.S. Department of Education. States compete for a portion of $4.3 billion set aside from the stimulus program. States improve their standing by adopting reforms like performance pay, charter schools and data-focused teacher evaluations.

Race to the Top has emboldened reform-minded policymakers like Bloomberg to push hard for their ideas. Just as importantly, the lure of earning federal dollars makes the reform position an appealing default for those policymakers whose primary interest lies outside education.

For instance, before Race to the Top, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger paid only brief lip service to education reform. After the grant competition was announced, the Governator called a special session of the state legislature and pushed for a series of meaningful reforms such as eliminating the state's charter school cap, using data to evaluate student and teacher performance, and adopting a performance pay program for teachers.

Some reformers question whether the Obama administration really has the stomach to keep Race to the Top strong enough to produce real reform. This argument got a boost when the final guidelines for the grant competition gave strong preference for removing statewide caps on the number of charter schools instead of requiring it as did the initial draft.

The final guidelines are hardly vacuous. Any reformer would have been pleased with the final guidelines if they had been proposed first or if even a handful of states adopted its policies prior to program's existence.

Further, Duncan hasn't been at all cagey about his intentions. In every interview and public appearance, the secretary has insisted that the bar will be high. Of course, only time will tell whether he is willing to keep money from states bleeding red ink, and we've seen bigger political retreats.

But at least so far, we've seen no sign the administration is wavering. There's not much more anyone can do to ease the critics' minds.

Importantly, the states seem to think that Race to the Top's guidelines are quite real indeed. The competition has already produced results even though it has not yet distributed a single dollar.

Several states have eliminated their caps on the number of charter schools allowed to operate in their jurisdictions. Wisconsin and California have abandoned their ludicrous ban on using student test scores to evaluate teachers. None of these important education reforms were on the agenda before Race to the Top came along.

But for Race to the Top to truly change education policy, it can't be a one-time deal. Secretary Duncan's call to embed Race to the Top-style enticements for continued education reforms in a reauthorized No Child Left Behind law deserves serious thought.

Race to the Top is proving to be a big step in the right direction toward fixing America's public education system.

Marcus Winters is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and author of the report “Everyone Wins: How Charter Schools Benefit All New York City Public School Students.”

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