Texas Keeps Out of the Race
In the Race to the Top, Texas is prudently sitting on the sidelines. Texas’ education commissioner explains why it’s not worth it for the state to comply with the Department of Education’s conditions:
“Even if we won the full amount, it would only run our schools for two days, so for that we weren’t going to cede control over our curriculum standards,” Mr. Scott said.
One-time cash awards won’t be very helpful to Race to the Top winners in the long term, as Texas officials can foresee. Nor will the process give reforms a chance to sprint ahead. Race to the Top asks states to make changes on paper that might not affect what goes on in schools at all. For example, to be competitive, states have to remove legislative caps on the number of charter schools that can operate. But they don’t have to approve any new charters. So, states could lift their charter caps, win cash and praise from Arne Duncan, and then turn down all charter proposals for spurious reasons. The states would have more money, but students wouldn’t have any more choices than what they started with.
There’s good reason to be skeptical of Race to the Top demands including abolishing caps on charters. As we’ve seen in Oregon, legislative caps are not always the main barrier to opening a charter. Oregon requires charter proposals to be submitted to school boards. These boards govern the same districts that the proposed charters would compete with, were they approved. Understandably reluctant to admit competitors to their districts, the boards deny charters on weak grounds or force them to resubmit proposals with minute improvements.
The Department of Education can’t correct this problem with a blanket directive to all states. It would have to examine each state’s charter approval process and identify which policies are holding back charter expansion. And it’s the same for other Race to the Top priorities: In some states, laws separating teacher data from student data may rule out merit pay, while for other states, merit pay may be illegal or difficult to implement for unrelated reasons. And so on.
Thus far, Missouri hasn’t shown Texas’ discretion — the state plans to apply for a Race to the Top grant. I hope Race to the Top won’t distract the state from meaningful reforms. Missouri officials should bear in mind that the ultimate goal is to make substantive policy improvements, not to win an award.