Leaving Cash on the Table…

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Indiana’s school system bowed out of Round Two of Race to the Top in late April. Why would a state walk away from a potentially huge education bonanza? We looked into the issue, and here’s what we found.

For one thing, Indiana officials complain that the Race to the Top scoring favors states with fewer teachers’ unions. Whether or not this was intentional in any way is immaterial. Indiana has 293 school districts, more than many other states, and it was a Herculean task to get all the unions and education leadership on the same page.  Kim Preston, Director of Communication for Indiana’s Department of Education adds that Delaware, which won about $100 million in the first round of Race to the Top funding, has few enough school districts that they could all talk around a single table.

Indiana’s Dale Chu, Senior Adviser for School Leadership & Policy, explains that the challenge of getting so many individuals to play nicely together makes it nearly impossible to get wide-spread  buy-in for bold reforms.

The federal emphasis on getting that buy-in from teachers unions is certainly understandable. But Chu speculates that there could have been another worthwhile approach: using the awards to incentivize bolder reforms as opposed to guaranteeing achievability.  It would have sent a very interesting message, says Chu, if a state like Louisiana, which had some of the boldest reforms, would have won money in the first round instead of finishing 11th.

Another question from Indiana about the scoring and the Race to the Top judges: “There wasn’t consistency from the reviewers. The feds did not throw out high scores or low scores even if they seemed to be an anomaly,” says Chief Operating Officer Heather Neal. “While the [scoring] rubric we had seemed specific, we’re not sure how standardized the training or implementation was.”

By way of example, Chu points again to Louisiana’s grades: “Two [of their five reviewers] said they didn’t submit a bold, comprehensive reform plan. I don’t think you can find two other people in the country who didn’t think they had a bold reform plan.”

But all of these concerns aside, Neal, Preston, and Chu agree that the Race to the Top’s competitive reform grant-making has been catalytic. (“It can’t be overstated how valuable some of those conversations we had here internally were,” Chu says.)  In fact, their main worry is that it will be a  once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, rather than a dynamic, ongoing shift in federal education support.

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