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Duncan on Race to Top: Bold Reform More Crucial Than Buy-In

After staying out of the Race to the Top round-two fray for weeks, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is finally starting to take the gloves off and wade into the middle of a big debate over just how important "buy-in" is in a state's application.

Today, in a routine conference call with the business community (he does this sort of outreach regularly), he declared: "At the end of the day we're going to [fund] the strongest proposals whether they have tremendous buy-in or not." (The department invited me to listen in on the call, which was to encourage business leaders to support states' Race to the Top efforts.)

Although broad collaboration and buy-in should remain a goal, he said, if a state's proposal is "more consensus but watered-down reform, that's not going to be a winning application."

The growing tension between states and unions over being bold, yet getting "buy-in," is illustrated in this EdWeek story from Friday.

And, it was mentioned in today's Wall Street Journal, where Duncan said "watered-down proposals with lots of consensus won't win." (For the record, the Education Department has declined EdWeek's requests for an interview with the secretary on this topic of "buy-in".)

The June 1 application deadline for the second round of Race to the Top is about six weeks away, and states are running into all sorts of problems trying to make their applications bolder, while still maintaining significant support from local districts and teachers' unions. The 500-point scoring system rewards states for getting more districts and teachers unions on board—although district participation is far more important than union support. Getting union support is akin to bonus points, while states must secure district support in order to count those districts as participating in a state's plan. The more districts participating, the better.

In a sense, Duncan's assertion that bold reforms matter more than buy-in is supported by simple math. In the 500-point scoring system, 48 percent of the points are dedicated to the quality of a state's reform plans. Less than 20 percent of the points (and the exact number of points depends on what you count as "buy-in") have anything to do with district, or to a lesser extent, union support.

What will be interesting is how state and local education leaders respond to Duncan's attempt to reshape the Race to the Top narrative that's been developing. That narrative, as it's playing out in states, seems to be that buy-in is a necessary component to winning. No doubt, Duncan himself (unwittingly perhaps) contributed to that in explaining why Delaware and Tennessee won in round one. But Duncan is now trying to counter such an impression. In response to a question on today's conference call from a business leader in Colorado, he said bold plans come first, and collaboration second. He said applications that have both will be "slam-dunk winners," while proposals with broad consensus that only advance the status quo won't win. Keep in mind that in this round, unlike round one, there will be 10 to 15 winners. The odds of winning are just better this time.

So, will Indiana Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony "The Stud" Bennett reconsider his decision to withdraw from the competition, citing lack of union cooperation? Will the controversial teacher-tenure bill in Colorado, opposed by the state teachers' union but deemed important by state education leaders for Race to the Top, now garner even more support? Will unions, in general, lose a little bit of leverage?

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