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On the Road with RTT...A Few More Thoughts

Yesterday, I offered three thoughts that had struck me regarding Race to the Top (RTT) as I flit around the country talking about my new book, Education Unbound. For what it's worth, here are a few more thoughts.

I'm increasingly convinced that the energy devoted to RTT has focused state reform communities on dreaming up plans that demand more resources and new investments. Even in the most far-sighted locales (and perhaps especially in these) one result has been a massive distraction from asking how to use the bleak budgetary environment that looms into the middle of the next decade as an opportunity to rethink and transform the K-12 cost structure in smart ways. There has been neither strategizing nor even nascent efforts at the requisite building of political support. In more than a few cases, RTT has provided state education agencies and state reformers a welcome excuse to avoid the less pleasant tasks of identifying and wringing out inefficiencies and driving transformation without new goodies to offer.

At least a couple state chiefs for whom I have enormous respect, and whom helm RTT finalists, have told me, "Look, we didn't pad this budget. These are the resources we need to do what we've promised." They claim they scrubbed the numbers and padded nothing. It will be real interesting to see whether the Department is willing (or even able) to attempt to gauge the tautness of Round 1 winners' budgets or simply gives everyone a haircut. If it goes the haircut route, of course, it'll perversely reward those states where consultants most avidly engaged in the usual number padding. Meanwhile, multiple chiefs have told me that their budgets are what they absolutely need to fund a coherent package, and that they would think seriously about rejecting RTT dollars if the feds offer less than requested but expect the promised results. Is that empty talk? We'll see.

I've heard growing frustration in some quarters that the Common Core standards push, conceived and sold by NGA and CCSSO as a state-driven exercise, has been increasingly federalized through RTT and now the proposed NCLB reauthorization. Several state officials, and a few associated with organizations that spearheaded the effort, have mentioned to me their disappointment that the administration has pushed so aggressively to require states to embrace the standards. Drawing far more resistance on this score than RTT is the proposal to potentially require adoption as a condition of aid in the ESEA blueprint (the particulars on this point are a little ambiguous, as there's some disagreement among the experts as to just what the blueprint language would mean). Virginia Secretary of Education Gerard Robinson, for instance, has made it very clear that Virginia has no intention of adopting new standards. If this were to put the state's federal ed dollars at risk, the Obama administration would enter the reauthorization push with two seriously disgruntled Democratic senators. While there's mostly positive buzz around the standards and the enthusiastic early reception, these murmurs may signal tension ahead.

Finally, I'm curious about how much RTT has sparked lasting change, or whether the proposals, collaborations, and energy will fade after the thrill is gone. It being March, I've mused about the NCAA March Madness parallel. For three weeks, offices are suffused with talk of brackets. Tens of millions obsessively consult websites and argue about picks. The energy builds to a crescendo on Final Four weekend. The morning after the national title game, the office winner is announced. And then... poof. Everyone goes back to their routine and three days later the whole thing seems like a fever dream. Will the same thing happen to the champions of RTT-style reform?

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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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