The Obama administration created a competitive grant program for the states called Race to the Top. It was his form of education stimulus money, aimed at systemic improvement of America’s public schools. The highest scoring state in this competition was Delaware. When I first read that it was selected, I actually froze in disbelief. It was incomprehensible, given what I know, and what I have seen in that state and in its schools. I believed in Obama and worked to elect him in large part because of his commitment to improve public education. This award, for me, means that he has utterly, even catastrophically, failed. I have already written about his abandonment of special education. But an award to Delaware for massive systemic reform as a model for the country? Nope. Not in anybody’s lifetime. Was it a pay off to Joe Biden? To Tom Carper? I need in my heart to understand this. How can Delaware, the tiny first state of America, a state with no sales tax, a state of the richest rich and the poorest poor, win a Race to the Top?
Douglas Harris, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, provided a helpful explanation for the context for this analysis (The Evidence on Race to the Top- Are the Naysayers Right, Education Week, 3/31/10). He says that the competition is driven by data and words only, with nobody getting down into the trenches to connect the data and the promises with reality. Eligibility to receive Race to the Top money required “assurances” that the state will take four steps:
Harris explains why Race to the Top is misleading and confusing. It is to be both a funding reform and a systemic reform, putting more than $80 billion into K-12 public education. He says that a plan cannot serve both missions, because they are mutually exclusive, even contradictory. In exchange for accepting the stimulus money, the state is to make significant systemic reform. But, he asks, how do you measure systemic reform? Using data to justify and measure reforms before they occur is impossible. Then there is the issue of what Harris calls “basic policy analysis”- namely, which grant is better, State X or State Y? Policy analysis is not the same as research analysis. It is- well, politics! (My words, not his.) He explains that researchers must be cautious about their conclusions because those conclusions must be based upon scientific inquiry. Policymakers, however, do not have that luxury. They must make a decision not necessarily based on evidence or proof, in order to meet a deadline. Oddly, Harris does not specify how policy decisions in education reform are to be made. I suggest that you find a comparable model and reason by analogy.
We have seen the Race to the Top model before. In fact we have seen it every year since 1976. Where? In special education. Each state develops and files its Annual State Plan for Receipt of Part B Funds from the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. That State Plan begins with a statement of assurances that have been required since 1976. Each state promises those assurances and each state breaks those promises yearly. There is no monitoring, and nothing is enforced. Federal dollars are awarded yearly to fund Part B services specified in the state’s application. That document sets out the needs, goals and objectives in special education for which the federal flow through money will be used. Systemic change was to occur but it never did, regardless of who was elected and which party was in power. Staff was to be trained yearly and improve their teaching and administrative skills. Objective measurements were to be taken of student growth- but that does not happen either. State plans are not competitive, but they are assurances of the states to the federal government as to how federal money is to be used in public education. If anybody in Obama’s administration, particularly Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, had made an effort to look at comparable models to Race to the Top, the stimulus money would never have been handled the way it was. Delaware would never have been rewarded the two year grant. Delaware is among the very worst offenders in special education and is now gloating over its monumental scam, as Arne Duncan chases Alice down the rabbit hole of good money after bad. What are the facts about Delaware’s award in Race to the Top?
In the 2005-2006 school-year, an organization called Vision 2015 was created and came to Delaware. It had a 28 person Steering Committee of Delaware’s educators, business people, government and community leaders. Allegedly, they received input from hundreds of teachers, principals, parents, students, and members of the public from all across the state. (In special education, this is called a Needs Assessment, a requirement before developing the State or local plan for federal funding.) Exactly, what was the vision of Vision for 2015?
DELAWARE’S GRANT APPLICATION
Delaware’s Department of Education presented an action plan in its application to “Strengthen Our Schools.” It listed four specific goals to ensure that Delaware schools were world class. They were:
THE POLITICS BEHIND THE DELAWARE AWARD
Vision 2015 held a day long conference in Delaware on 10/27/09 (U.S. Secretary Talks to DOE School Leaders, Mark Eichman). Secretary Duncan’s address was part of the Vision 2015’s effort to improve Delaware’s schools, making them the best in the world by 2015. On 1/14/10, the Delaware State Board of Education approved reforms to teacher evaluations. Teachers are now required to show that their students are making satisfactory progress in order to get an “effective” rating. A mentor or coach is provided to a teacher who is not “effective”. The “highly effective” rating means that the teacher’s students have shown significant improvement. This system begins during the 2011-2012 school year.
Two members of Vision 2015 Steering Committee were from the Rodel Foundation of Delaware. It issued a press release on 3/29/10 that congratulated Delaware for receiving the $100 million in the federal Race to the Top competition, describing itself as an educational nonprofit and a “major backer of the Vision 2015 school reform plan”. It did not disclose that it was an actual member of the Steering Committee. Vision 2015 was credited for the award because the application “wasn’t just about what’s new…traditionally, school districts can be fairly innovative (and)…then they don’t stick with it sometimes” said Jan Leaght, senior executive with Focus on Results, a consulting group working with Vision 2015 ).
Secretary Duncan explained why the top award was given to Delaware, noting that all 19 districts played a role in winning the application. “Delaware … has a strong application that will reach into every corner of the state and has the full support of its teachers’ unions.” He was confident that all students would benefit from these reforms. Delaware was ranked number one in the competition, its application getting 454.6 points out of a possible score of 500. The Delaware State Education Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, described the application as a “transformational model” rather than a turn-around model. Other teachers in the state view Vision 2015 and the award as an effort at union “busting”.
Delaware’s application for Race to the Top had a track record of reform, said federal officials, while the other states did not. Delaware developed statewide standards in 1994 (This is the year I did my first hearing in Delaware. Nary a state standard to be seen!) Thomas Carper was a two term Governor there and pushed state standards more than 10 years ago. He is now seen as the person primarily responsible for laying the groundwork leading to the present award. After Carper left Delaware, he ran for the House of Representatives and the Senate, where he remains. (I have a picture of me in his office while on a break during a hearing.)
This award does not pass the smell test. It is simply rotten to the core. The Steering Committee of Vision 2015 is comprised of many who are responsible for the terrible plight of some of Delaware’s neediest students, many of them in special education. How many on the Steering Committee, or who are consultants to the Steering Committee, will financially profit from this award? You can bet every one of them. And laws? Compliance? Nobody in Delaware government or in positions of power enforces anything- unless it puts money in their pocket at the expense of those who have none. Mr. President, shame on you!