Race to the Top dropouts

Nine of 40 states that participated in the first round of President Obama’s Race to the Top competition sat out of last week’s round two. But what prompted them to quit the race? Many states, like Minnesota and Indiana, said they didn’t have enough of a consensus to submit a cohesive application. Others claimed it was too much work for too little gain.

In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Pawlenty gave up after failing to secure teacher-union support for the state’s application.  “The state teacher’s union exerted their power and no [education reform] package passed, said Bill T. Walsh, communications director for the Minnesota Department of Education. “Without the reforms that the reviewers asked for, there was no point in applying for the second round.”

That may be, but in securing Race to the Top funding, Washington would be “asking Minnesota to embrace changes that the state wouldn’t go for if they weren’t in a financial crisis and it’s not that much money, particularly when spread across the school districts it might help,” said John Van Hacke, executive director of MN2020, a non-profit progressive think tank.

So far, only Tennessee and Delaware have received Race to the Top money. Both states were able to secure significant buy-in from teachers’ unions and local school boards, which was widely seen as a key to their round-one victories.

That said, Georgia, Florida and Illinois scored in the top five of the first round, despite not having full support from teachers’ unions and local school boards.

Some states, including Kansas and Wyoming, voiced opposition to greater federal involvement in education. But this seems a curious explanation for opting out of round two, given that both states applied the first time around. In round one, Kansas and Wyoming finished 29th and 32nd, respectively, which suggests a more likely explanation for their decision to drop out of round two: they had little hope of winning.

Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski provided a more straightforward reason for quitting the race. In a May 4th letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, he said the state needs to focus on building a stronger foundation for K-12 reform – read: teacher-union support was nonexistent – rather than trying to compete for Race to the Top funds. Oregon finished a distant 35th in the first round of the competition.

In Virginia, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell said that he doesn’t support the push for common standards and thus wouldn’t participate in the second round.

“Virginia has been a pioneer since the 1990s in standards and assessments,” said Charles B. Pyle, communications director for the Virginia Department of Education. “Uprooting this foundation for another set of standards that is comparable would be extremely disruptive to the students and teachers of Virginia.”

But given that states can petition Washington to retain their own standards if they’re indeed higher than the Common Core State Standards, it  seems more likely Virginia dropped out because it didn’t stand much chance of winning round two. Why not just say so? In round one, it finished 31st.

Idaho, Indiana, South Dakota, and West Virginia joined Kansas, Minnesota, Oregon, Virginia and Wyoming on the sidelines for round two. Four states – Alaska, North Dakota, Texas and Vermont – didn’t apply at all. Finalists for the second round of funding will be announced by the U.S. Department of Education in August. May the best reformers win.

Susan S. Sawyers and Justin Snider

POSTED BY ON June 9, 2010