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Sarasota Thursday, Apr. 8, 2010 7 years ago

My View: Race to federal control of schools

by: Rod Thomson

There is a lot to like in President Obama’s Race to the Top reforms for public education, and many conservatives are supporting them. But they are trading a greater value for a lesser value.

The problems inherent to the program are two-fold.

But first, the origin of Race to the Top is so Washington slimy and underreported that it bears further ink. Without any debate, discussion or maybe even knowledge to most lawmakers, $4.35 billion was slipped into the infamous stimulus spending bill last year to fund Race to the Top.

The idea was to improve public education through reforms that include accountability and choice and hold the carrot of grants out to states that propose implementing those reforms. The reform principles are laudable.

So why was it done this way? Perhaps because after President Bush’s No Child Left Behind muscled the feds further into local education, there was little appetite for more federal meddling. However, hiding this program in nearly $1 trillion in political pork, the Obama administration could bypass scrutiny and open debate.

Problem One: Unions. It is clear from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s statements that teacher unions hold power over plans. If a state does not have buy-in from the unions, it apparently won’t be considered.

The two states that were awarded grants in the first round, Tennessee and Delaware, were the only strong applicants that had nearly 100% support from the teachers unions. This crushes hope for true reform, because the unions — if not the teachers — are statist organizations that have grown powerful in the current system. Reform is the last thing they want.

Florida was thought to be a shoe-in for federal cash, but the Florida Education Association opposed the reforms, and the state was not awarded a grant.

Despite measurable increases in Florida student achievement after school choice was introduced and modest teacher performance pay reforms were put in place, grant cards showed the state lost out because of a lack of union support.

The Heritage Foundation reports that a Race to the Top reviewer said: “There does not appear to be visible support from teachers or union leadership … The application does not address how the state will move forward assertively to generate union buy-in.”

For Florida to get union support, it will have to dump some of the reforms that have been the most effective in improving student education.

Problem Two: Federal control. The bigger strike is that Race to the Top, much like No Child Left Behind, further empowers the federal government to control what is clearly a state responsibility.

There is a formula at work here. When the feds want to change something the states are doing, but have no legal power to do so — which seems to be less of an impediment all the time — they offer cash to the states if those states bend their laws to the federal will. Then the cash dries up or is held as a stick to keep the states in line.

In this case, there long has been a desire from central planning progressives to create a national curriculum with national testing standards. One size fits all 76 million students. Progressive bureaucrats always know best. Just ask them.

Worse, these tests ultimately would be based on internationally benchmarked standards produced in part by the United Nations. Not a good omen.

However, states stubbornly think they know what is best for their states. So Race to the Top sought to get them to “voluntarily” adopt the federal standards with bribes — that is, grants. Once the states take this one-time money, then they are locked into the federal curriculum and testing. Voila! Our tax money is used to bribe our state to become more D.C.-centric, and we not only never had a say, we never even knew it happened.

Florida should pass on the second round of Race to the Top and remain as independent from Washington as possible. It may seem to cost in the short term, but we will be much better educated in the long term.

Rod Thomson is executive editor of the Gulf Coast Business Review and can be reached at [email protected]

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