Rick Hess on the Failures of RTT

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top program has been one of the Obama administration’s most well-regarded policy initiatives. Rick Hess has been describing its limitations at his indispensable blog. One of his central criticisms resonates with me:

In the midst of a fiscal crunch which calls for smart budget-cutting and careful rethinking, RTT has encouraged state leaders and reformers to focus on dreaming up new ways to spend. Chasing new dollars has allowed state chiefs and legislatures to ignore less pleasant questions and to plug in hoped-for federal funds when baking the state schools budget. This has all served to sap time and attention from efforts to identify efficiencies, tackle problems with pensions and benefits, or help districts identify cost-savings and then muster the will to pursue them.

Fortunately, Hess has co-edited a new volume on Stretching the School Dollar, which I’m working my way through now.

Hess has also noted the fact that RTT has placed a heavier emphasis on future plans rather than structural reform. Because we’re likely to see a great deal of turnover in governor’s mansions, this creates an awkward set of circumstances:

In other words, more than 80% of the RTT winners may have new leaders in 2011. It’s not clear how wedded new governors will be to the airy promises and practices–such as, say, the adoption of the Common Core–contained in the winning RTT applications.

We thus have a situation in which RTT seems to have rewarded the wrong states:

The list of winners must’ve spurred a run on antacid at the Department of Ed. After all, several are clearly in the back of the pack on things Duncan has spent the past year touting. When it comes to state data systems, the Data Quality Campaign has ranked states based on the completeness of their data systems. Hawaii finished tied for 17th, Maryland tied for 35th, and New York tied for 48th. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools has rated Ohio 26th, Hawaii 34th, and Maryland 40th among the states when it comes to the clarity and strength of their charter laws. Hawaii’s third-place finish must be especially galling, given that Duncan has himself been critical of Hawaii’s teacher furlough policy, which dropped 17 school days from the calendar. Oh, and by the way, when it comes to teacher policy, the National Council on Teacher Quality has graded the states, with Ohio and New York each earning a D+, Maryland a D, and Hawaii a D- (NCTQ is a tough grader, but still…).

Is there some reason for this pattern? Hess suggests that the judging process has placed too heavy an emphasis on buy-in from the teachers unions.

When announcing round one winners Tennessee and Delaware, Duncan went to great pains to note that the two states had 100% or near-100% sign-offs from their local teacher unions. Not surprisingly, the judges listened. The result? Winners North Carolina, Ohio, and Hawaii had 100% of their union locals sign off on the proposal. Losing states like Colorado and New Jersey suffered because they couldn’t get enough union locals to submit vacuous pledges of support. Colorado had just half of its union locals on board, and New Jersey just 1%. Duncan signaled, the judges complied, and abiding by their scores meant rewarding the go-along-to-get-along states. Whoops again.

One of the states that lost in the RTT process is Louisiana. This is despite the fact that Louisiana has been widely recognized as a leader in education reform, and New Orleans is widely considered the nation’s leading laboratory for innovation in public education. Paul Pastorek, Louisiana’s State Superintendent of Education, spoke to Hess about his RTT experience, and what he sees as the limitations of the process.

It seems that RTT doesn’t deserve all of the good press it’s received. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be fixed. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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