Education Week is reporting that President Obama intends to seeks an additional $1.35 billion in next year’s budget to extend the Race To The Top program. The President is scheduled to make the announcement this afternoon, coinciding with the deadline for states to submit their RTTT applications. Says EdWeek,
Unanswered questions aside, the administration sees Race to the Top as a successful venture that it wants to expand, according to senior White House officials speaking on a background basis. In a briefing call Monday, they cited as evidence of the program’s impact the fact that 11 states have moved to enhance their chances of securing a grant by, for example, lifting charter school caps and strengthening state intervention in turning around low-performing schools. That reaction shows “the importance of continuing the Race to the Top beyond the funding that was provided under the Recovery Act,” a senior administration official said.
Here’s another possible reason for the Feds’ decision to announce a commitment to long-term funding: a calculated response to steep opposition from many state teachers’ unions to the RTTT reform agenda. In N.J., for example, a scant 20 local units of NJEA agreed to cooperate with local boards and administrators and sign the application. After getting flogged by local media for undermining N.J.’s chances at hundreds of millions of dollars for education, NJEA President Barbara Keshishian explained NJEA’s objections in a Star-Ledger editorial on Sunday:
But when federal funds have strings attached, states should look before they leap. That is especially true if those strings obligate states to spend additional funds that may not be covered by the grants. NJEA is concerned about the strings attached to the “Race to the Top” funds, because of the potential cost to the state and local districts and because of the negative educational impact of some of its required “reforms.”
In other words, Keshishian claims that NJEA is not only concerned with the fundamental reforms imbedded in RTTT like using data to inform instruction, linking teacher compensation to competency, and expanding charter schools, especially in cities with chronically failing systems. NJEA also focuses its rhetoric on potential liability for districts that sign up for longer school days or expensive technology systems, and then find that the pot of money runs dry. That’s a reasonable concern expressed not just NJEA but other state unions.
President Obama’s message today, however, will strategically undermine that concern and force the leadership of state unions to reinvent talking points. If RTTT is an on-going federal program, then a linchpin of NJEA/NEA’s logic evaporates. The Feds also respond to a growing cry from ed reformers that RTTT has the potential to backfire, rewarding states that propose weaker agendas and therefore manage to solicit union buy-in, and punishing states that propose more ambitious agendas but, in doing so, fail to cajole union leadership to sign on the dotted line.