Federal Race to the Top education program suffers criticism, but not in Colorado

Does the Race to the Top—Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s $4.3 billion education reform contest among the states—handicap rural states?

Rural states like Vermont think so and their governor’s offices have responded with strong criticism. So why does Colorado’s governor seem to love Race to the Top?

Vermont’s Commissioner of Education thinks so. In a letter to Duncan last week, Armando Vilaseca argued that Race to the Top guidelines catered unfairly to Vermont’s more urban neighbors.

Vilaseca was particularly upset with the requirement that all states enact charter school legislation, pointing out that in many towns, Vermont does not have enough students for an alternative school.

Vilaseca also stood up for the tradition of local control. In Vermont, he argued, small towns have done well with the freedom to experiment with gradeless schools, arts magnets—or even designate a local independent school as the public school of choice.

In a July 28 letter to Duncan, Denise Juneau, Montana’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, also protested the Race to the Top emphasis on charter schools. “Requiring the opening of charter schools in very small communities does not make sense,” she argued.

They’re not alone—a recent EdWeek article quoted a number of rural education advocates noting that Duncan’s priorities seem to be tilted toward urban settings.

For example, small districts in isolated areas face big challenges when it comes to teacher and principal recruitment and to professional-development opportunities.

In addition, small districts don’t have the luxury of big central-office staffs and a host of curriculum specialists, which can be especially helpful in turning around low-performing schools—another priority of Secretary Duncan’s…

Mr. Duncan’s heavy emphasis on performance-based pay for teachers also ruffles a few feathers. Rural educators note, for instance, that merit pay may not work well for them if peer review is part of the evaluation process—if you’re the only math teacher for 100 miles, who’s going to review you?

But Colorado—despite its many rural districts—has embraced Duncan’s Race to the Top contest. Gov. Bill Ritter and Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien gave only minor suggestions for improvement in their comments on the draft guidelines: a request for a scoring rubric, a suggestion that early childhood and post-secondary education be integrated into reform plans, and a request that states adopt 85 percent of any national standards, not 100 percent. Here’s the sycophantic preface to their suggestions:

Thank you for providing the Race to the Top competition. We believe that it is a valuable opportunity for states like Colorado that have been actively engaged in meaningful education reform for several years to capitalize on their progress and deliver on the potential of their reform efforts.

The Aspen Institute’s Commission on No Child Left Behind also glowed with praise for the program:

We are pleased that the Administration’s draft reflects a strong commitment to accelerating progress toward what we believe are the right goals for education reform—higher academic achievement, improved graduation rates, and narrowed achievement gaps.

And:

By requiring states to demonstrate significant progress in all of these areas—which our research and experience have shown to be mutually reinforcing and critical to improving education—the Department is setting a much higher bar for state applications under RTTT than is typical of competitive grant programs.

In general, Duncan received an earful this last month—positive and negative—during the comment period for the proposed Race to the Top guidelines, which ended Aug. 28.

For a summary of comments on the proposed Race to the Top guidelines, visit Education Week’s story here.

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Katie Redding

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