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On the Road with RTT

Andy Smarick's dazzling new "AEI Education Stimulus Watch," bringing readers up to speed on all things edu-stimulus, is out today. It provides a vivid look at the Race to the Top (RTT) landscape; in particular, combining Andy's principled enthusiasm for RTT with his careful attention to how the program is playing out. Readers will find especially useful his attention to the challenges of program design, ED execution, and political gamesmanship. (Full disclosure: As the report's title implies, it is written for and published by my AEI Education shop).

I found Andy's piece especially thought-provoking, as I've been on the road the past couple weeks talking about my new book. My travels have involved visiting a number of RTT finalists. In all of them, I've had the chance to catch up with friends and colleagues involved in their state's bid. Those discussions have clarified for me six observations worth noting. I'll chat about a few below and finish up tomorrow.

One, casual observers may not be tracking the intriguing gamesmanship that's unfolding among reform-minded state legislators, SEA officials, key supes, and their allies. In places like Colorado, some important insiders have long thought it might be useful to lose in Round 1 but with some clear signals as to where the state came up short, hoping that might help build legislative backing for tough-to-sell measures. Others, there and elsewhere, suspect a defeat might be more like letting the air out of a balloon, and that it will be hard to garner enthusiasm for substantial new efforts before the Round 2 application deadline.

Two, everyone has long been bemused (and impressed) at how much leverage RTT chief Joanne Weiss has gotten with dollars that actually aren't that big in the edu-scheme. Especially given that RTT winnings will entail a four-year payout, the actual outlay for most states amounts to no more than 1 to 2 percent of annual edu-spending. In Louisiana, for instance, full funding of the request would amount to about $80 million a year, in a state with a K-12 budget of $6.5 billion. The key thing to remember is that legislatures, like school boards, eat their seed corn by the bushel by pushing every possible dollar into current operations (e.g. across-the-board hiring and salaries). So, funds for even seemingly small-bore investments like data systems or the ability to incubate new school operations are tough for strategic leaders to carve out. One of RTT's great virtues is that, by encouraging states to link proposed outlays to specific infrastructure investments, it has created opportunities for far-sighted state leaders. This is pretty much an unmitigated blessing. (Unfortunately, it's also exactly the opposite of what 95%+ of the $100 billion in edu-stimulus spending did).

Third, as frequently noted, the RTT competition has powerfully leveraged the irrational "animal spirits" of states leaders and reformers. An interesting wrinkle that struck home is the parallel to NCLB restructuring. As Checker Finn and I noted several years ago in No Remedy Left Behind, one could observe something of a "Wizard of Oz" effect with NCLB restructuring; namely, the reaction to the threat of sanctions seemed disproportionate to their actual severity. We wondered what would happen later, when experience made clear how mild NCLB restructuring typically was. We suspected that greater familiarity would tear away the curtain, exposing the little man at the levers and diluting the response. I think that experience showed this is just what happened in most states. Now, with RTT, the question is whether the energy generated by RTT's flashy marketing and exterior can be sustained once legislators, superintendents, union chiefs, and reformers get a look at the list of winners, the actual dollar amounts, and the associated requirements. We'll have to wait and see.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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