Saturday, May 15, 2010

President Obama's school plan "Race to the Top" riles lawmakers

You may have guessed from my prior blogs that I am not a fan of the Department of Education and Arne Duncan. My opinion is that education is the responsibility of the States and we should ditch the whole Federal education system.

Since this program is a contest to receive funds, it appears to be subject to political manipulation and will be used as "Federal leverage for change". What kind of change, based on what we have seen from this administration, should scare the devil out of us.

Rep. Dave Obey believes school districts are "drowning in a sea of red ink" and this money should be thrown at them. This is the Democrat answer to all problems. As we have found out in the past, this tactic does not work and, in this economic climate, like in NJ, school budgets are being looked at critically. The answer is not more money, but getting rid of the bureaucracy, bringing benefits and salaries in line with the private sector, eliminating tenure to increase the effectiveness of the teaching staff, eliminating union work rules, and getting the available funds back into the classrooms.

Race to the Top is hitting the wall.

President Barack Obama’s $4.35 billion grant competition — designed to encourage states to dramatically improve school performance — is running into resistance across the country, as state officials and teachers unions are clashing with the administration over the contest rules.

And now Congress is getting into the act — with lawmakers of both parties challenging the president’s tough-love approach to school improvement.

“There are some very tough feelings over this,” said Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.). “Some people are afraid to say it, but I’m not.”

Minnesota Rep. John Kline, the top Republican on the Education and Labor Committee, has said he will urge Congress to oppose Obama’s request for $1.35 billion to extend the program in his fiscal 2011 budget.

“We have a program here that’s not yet proven,” he said. “We haven’t figured out if $4.35 billion is being spent wisely. Why would we add $1.35 billion?”

The idea seemed simple: Hold a contest for states to compete for billions in federal aid, right at a moment when school systems are battling budget problems. To win the funding, schools would have to convince Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s team that they were prepared to instill more teacher accountability and tougher standards to help students learn.

Only two of the 41 states that applied — Tennessee and Delaware — cleared the bar, and the administration said the first leg of the competition reaffirmed the rigorous standards. “You got to show us you’re building excellence in your school system,” Obama told a crowd in Buffalo, N.Y., on Thursday.

But, just two weeks away from a June 1 deadline for the second round of funding, some states are rethinking whether it’s worth the trouble to apply — even though Duncan has said there might be 10 to 15 winners this time around.

“A number of the states are pretty discouraged because they went through a grinding process in order to get agreement on changes from state legislatures, local school districts and unions,” said Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy.

“Then cold water was thrown on them.”

At the center of the debate is the Education Department’s 500-point scoring system, which appeared to favor those who locked down 100 percent agreement from all parties on key Obama administration goals like revitalizing low-performing schools, revamping teacher evaluation and expanding charter schools. Tennessee’s 136 school districts seem manageable compared with the 1,000-plus districts in California, they told Duncan. And getting full union buy-in varies from state to state.

“Arne says that’s not true and it wasn’t meant to be, but when you only award two states that have 100 percent participation, the signal is sent you need 100 percent participation to win,” said Landrieu. “And if you don’t get 100 percent, you will water down your proposal. I’d rather not have that.”

A new Economic Policy Institute report found the scoring system to be “subjective and arbitrary, more a matter of bias or chance than a result of these states’ superior compliance with reform policies.”

But the Education Department is not budging on its scoring criteria. Education spokesman Justin Hamilton swatted down criticism. “It rewards states that are pushing the envelope,” he said. “This program isn’t called ‘Race to the Middle.’”

Rep. Dave Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said this reform push distracts from the giant fiscal crisis at hand. “Many school districts are drowning in a sea of red ink,” he told Duncan in a March hearing. “We need to help them keep afloat, not have them filling out long applications to compete for grants based on a reform agenda that they’re not able to pursue in this economy.”

At the same time, the fiscal crisis will ultimately drive some budget-crunched states to reapply, education experts predict.

“Clearly, Duncan believes federal money should be used as a federal leverage for change,” Jennings said. “States are so desperate.”
Read article here.

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