It’s no real surprise that Washington state was not chosen as one of the finalists for federal “Race to the Top” education money, but it’s still a tough setback. An extra $250 million or so would’ve been awfully sweet in such sour budgetary times.
Race to the Top is the federal government’s $3.4 billion program aimed at persuading the states to change their educational systems to improve student outcomes and hold teachers and administrators accountable. It is funded by federal stimulus dollars.
The state started the contest well behind competitors when it came to education innovation and accountability. It was so far back that it didn’t even bother to apply for the first round of grants. So education leaders knew this would be an uphill slog. Still, important legislation was passed last session, and the goals the state is striving toward remain commendable.
We won’t know until September, when the second-round winners are announced, how close the state came and where it fell short. That’s when scoring details will be released.
The key now is for the state’s education leaders to hang together, read the report card and advocate for changes that will improve the state’s schools.
They’ll also need a united front in seeking state funds to implement reforms.
Some critics of the legislation that did pass claimed it would be viewed as too soft. On the one hand, the U.S. Department of Education was looking for “buy in” from school districts and teacher unions. On the other hand, the feds were wary of states that softened reform measures to gain wider acceptance.
This may have been the case in the area of teacher evaluations, for instance. Washington state legislators added a four-tier process that expands the bare-bones evaluation that teachers currently receive. However, some states have tied student achievement to teacher performance. Washington has not. This may have served to gain more buy in from teachers, but it probably hurt the state’s score.
Even if federal funds are no longer available, education leaders should still push to strengthen reforms related to teacher and principal evaluations and turning around poor performing schools.
It would be a shame if the coalition that rallied round the state’s Race to the Top application were to break apart. A total of 265 out of 297 school districts signed onto the application, including Spokane Public Schools. Along with teacher unions, the League of Education Voters, the Partnership for Learning and prominent statewide business groups also endorsed the application.
Reform is coming to the state. While the state lost this contest, it can’t react by trudging off to the sidelines. To stay competitive, we must keep our eye on the ball.