Dangling the Carrot in Education

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  Capitol Ideas: September / October 2010

The race to education reform in Tennessee was several years in the making, but broke into a sprint at the end.

The Tennessee General Assembly convened for a special session Jan. 12 to consider education reforms in advance of an application deadline for the federal Race to the Top competition, a  $4.35 billion education grant program included in the 2009 stimulus package.

Three days later, legislators approved the governor’s changes to improve the state’s chances for a first round award. The changes affect teacher evaluation and tenure, teacher preparation programs and the state’s authority to intervene in poorly performing schools.

“We had set our state’s own course, under the Tennessee Diploma Project and the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, before Race to the Top was conceived,” said Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, chair of The Council of State Governments’ Southern Legislative Conference.

But the potential to reap hundreds of millions of dollars for schools at a time of extreme fiscal stress proved to be a strong catalyst for moving the legislation forward, and not just in Tennessee. Many states passed legislation  to improve their chances to win a slice of the grant program,  making changes to state education policy not in exchange for federal funds, but rather to be eligible to receive funds.

In these tight fiscal times, the shift from mandates to competitive grants has accelerated the pace at which states have approached reform. And this has, in turn, shifted the nature of the state-federal relationship with respect to schools in a fundamental way, giving states more flexibility but without the assurance of funding.

“The relationship between state and federal governments in education is fluid and continues to evolve,” Norris said. “For those of us who champion states’ rights and oppose nationalization of our local schools, the potential incentive grants offer for freedom and collaboration is significant.”

For Tennessee, one of two states to win Race to the Top funding in the first round, the grant  process helped to crystallize support for reforms that will steer federal government dollars to the state for education. Other states that also adopted education policy changes for Race to the Top, including Michigan and California, have taken the transformational steps, but without a fiscal reward.

Tennessee Sen. Dolores Gresham, chair of the Senate Education Committee, told the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus Weekly Review the reforms were good policy regardless of federal stimulus funds. “To think we might have done this just for the money is inconceivable,” she said in the Weekly Review. “The receipt of federal funds is an added bonus to needed education changes that should be passed with or without federal intervention.”

The State of Federalism
The state of federalism in education can be summed up briefly: Schools are a local responsibility, increasingly paid for at the state level, and managed by policies increasingly set at the national level. That national involvement began in the late 1950s when the launch of Sputnik raised worries the U.S. was falling behind on education and brought new federal attention to schools.

Oregon Speaker Pro Tem Arnie Roblan, a former high school principal, recalls it clearly. “In the late 1950s and 1960s, following Sputnik, the federal government’s interactions with schools were to provide teachers opportunities to learn from the very best and build excellence in the system.”

The federal role in education grew again in the 1960s with the war on poverty, as education became part of a broader civil rights agenda to promote equality and opportunity with the
Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1964. Over its history, the act has expanded the
role of the federal government in education, most markedly in 2001 with No Child Left
Behind, its most recent reauthorization. No Child Left Behind used the federal government’s power of the purse to promote changes in education policy and practice at the state and local level for practically all students. Now the education law is more than two years overdue for renewal and Congress faces a federalism question on the direction of education policy.

Moving the Federalism Debate
Recent steps by President Obama’s administration imply a shift from the current approach of treating all students and schools as equally in need of support and attention. At a news conference announcing the administration’s blueprint for reauthorizing the law, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said, “for the vast majority of schools, we’re going to get rid of prescriptive interventions.”

The new approach focuses on improving the outcomes at the poorest performing 5 percent of schools, but that focus includes stringent interventions that are more intrusive than any sanctions in No Child Left Behind. And while the reauthorization blueprint remains largely that, the administration’s ambitious Race to the Top fund marks a change in policy and approach at the federal level to allow more flexibility and less control.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin is encouraged by this shift. “I applaud and strongly agree with the Obama administration’s position on education and believe they are moving in the right direction,” he said.

Roblan acknowledges the opportunities a new federal approach could have, but remains concerned about the potential for replacing mandates with equally prescriptive grant criteria.
“Race to the Top was a good exercise for the states who participated, in that it brought together the people involved in education to review what they were doing, assess its impact and see if what was being done was what they wanted to be doing,” he said. “But Race to the Top in the end  looked like a way to force states to adopt choices that were sought after in Washington, without really funding them.”

The difficulty in achieving the aims of federal policy is on Manchin’s mind as well. “Some of the  changes the federal government is proposing are tough lifts,” he said. “States need some  assistance and flexibility in finding the solutions that work best for them. In a nation as diverse as  ours, one solution does not fit all.”

But that doesn’t mean the federal government can’t play a role. Roblan of Oregon said the federal government can identify and promote what works, but in the end states and local school systems will be the ones to effect change and monitor success.

“The best thing we can do is to provide the best tools to each of our teachers so they can meet the needs of the children who come into their classrooms,” he said.

Defining the roles for each player in the education system has become a major component of resolving deficiencies and expanding opportunities, Norris said. “Maintaining the requisite independence from federal overreaching will continue to be each state’s special challenge,” Norris said.

As Congress considers reauthorization of the education law, Norris said it should take special care “to respect the special relationship between teacher and student; local, state and federal government; and the importance of autonomy in closing the achievement gap.”

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