Category Archives: Race to the Top

No Charter Schools in Kentucky, At Least Not Yet

The regular legislative session of the Kentucky General Assembly has ended, and a few things should be noted. First and arguably most important, we do not have a budget. Also noteworthy, however, is that legislators were unable to get a bill through which contained a provision creating charters schools in the commonwealth. kentucky is one of only 11 states that have not passed charter school legislation, but during this legislative session lawmakers came ever so close to making the charter school idea a reality in Kentucky. The last minute push for the somewhat controversial (at least in Kentucky) education reform came as a result of Kentucky failing to win federal funding in the Race to the Top competition. Kentucky did successfully make it to the finals of the first round, but in the end, not having charter school legislation proved to be too costly for the state’s application to win funding.

If the bill had passed successfully, Kentucky’s charter law would have been a conservative one. The bill granted local school boards sole authority to approve charter school applications. The schools would have existed as entities within local school districts, and would have been held accountable to local boards. Kentucky charter schools would have only been able to hire state certified teachers and administrators, and charter schools would have been bound by any local bargaining agreement between teachers unions local school boards. Clearly, the bill was crafted conservatively with the intent of making the reform palatable for traditional public school proponents/charter school opponents. With hopes of winning funding in the second round of the Race to the Top competition, the charter school provision had won the support of the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE), and many local school district officials around the state.
All may not be lost for charter school enthusiasts in Kentucky. Because the state has not passed a budget, the legislature will be heading for a special session, where the charter school discussion could very likely pick up again. The enticement of federal funding in Race to the Top may be just enough to move Kentucky into “Charter Land.” To be honest, with the way the provision is presently written, I have a hard time seeing why traditionalists would oppose it. If anything, charter school proponents should oppose its restrictiveness. The proposed law is so restrictive that the likelihood of charter schools really taking off under it are slim to none. I say let’s get this done Kentucky and fight for funding in round 2. I’ll keep you posted here as this unfolds.

“Race to the Top” Drives Charter School Consideration in Alabama

The latest example of Race to the Top driving education policy change in the states may be the Alabama state legislature’s consideration of a charter schools in the state. Alabama’s governor, Bob Riley, is making a strong push for allowing the creation of charter schools in the state. The push comes as a result of the state bid for federal education funding in the Race to the Top competition. The US Department of Education’s guidelines indicates that some degree of preference will be given to states that allow for the creation of creation charter schools as a school reform strategy. 

As would be expected, there is some resistance to the creation of charters in Alabama, and it comes from the expected places. The Alabama Education Association (AEA), the state’s largest professional educators association, does not support the creation of charter schools in Alabama. AEA opposes the creation of charter schools charging that charter schools will take money “from every student enrolled in the public schools of our state (a total of 740,000) and use it to create charter schools to serve only a relatively few students.” AEA’s argument is one that we’ve heard from profession education association’s around the nation now since the passage of the first charter school legislation in Minnesota in the early 1990s. But to be honest, it’s not a very good argument. There are valid arguments to be made against the establishment of charter schools, but AEA’s argument is not one. Funding for public schools, both charter and traditional, is allocated based on the number of students that a school serves. If Birmingham City Schools is serving a student, then they receive the applicable funding for that child. In the same way, if a charter school is serving a student, the charter school receives the per pupil allocation for that student. AEA is not being honest about their real issue, which is that the presence of charter schools within a school district forces the traditional public schools to compete for that student and the funding that follows him/her, whereas without charter schools, traditional public school districts have a virtual monopoly on public education. But I digress. This is another topic.
My point here is to again highlight the impact that the Obama Department of Education is having on education policy through the Race to the Top competition. The George W. Bush Administration’s handprint on education came with the passage and implementation of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The Obama Administration, however, before even taking up the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), has used the enticement of record amounts of federal education funding to drive states to make substantive overhauls of their education systems. Alabama’s consideration and probable adoption of a charter school policy is a case in point. The US caught charter school fever in the early 1990’s, and as of today, 40 states and the District of Columbia have adopted some form of charter school legislation. Alabama is one of only 10 states that have not. The charter school reform strategy has floated around the US for nearly 20 year now, and for various reasons, many political, Alabama had chosen not to adopt it. I argue that were it not for the Race to the Top competition, Alabama would not be seriously considering the measure now. What we can take away from this is that the scent of federal dollars, especially during difficult economic times, has the power to coax states into doing things that they would not have otherwise done. Money makes things happen; even education reform. And whether you are a supporter, opponent, or indifferent toward the Obama Department of Education’s priorities, you have to admit that their strategy has been masterful thus far in getting states to march to their beat.

Tying Teacher Evaluation to Student Performance in Louisiana

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal has received considerable attention over the last couple of weeks as a result of his voiced support for tying teacher evaluation in Louisiana to student test score growth. Jindal said recently that a system which evaluates and financially rewards teachers based on student test scores is a central component of Louisiana’s Race to the Top proposal for overhauling the state’s education system; but that regardless of whether the Race to the Top proposal is successful, the state will move forth with developing and implementing the new evaluation system. 

The system that Jindal is pushing for would evaluate teachers in part based on “value-added” measures of student performance. In other words, teachers would be evaluated on the amount of academic growth that students make over the course of the school year. Value-added measures differ significantly from absolute measures. In an evaluation system using absolute measures for evaluation, teachers might be evaluated on the percentage of students that meet a fixed or absolute standard. An example of such a standard would be the expectation the 80% of a teacher’s class scores at the level of “proficient” on end of the year standardized exams; or that all students in a teacher’s class are reading “at grade-level” by the end of the school year. The problem with such measures is that they fail to take into account students’ levels of performance when they enter a teacher’s classroom at the start of the school year. It is really pretty ridiculous to hold a teacher to the expectation that her eighth grade students will be reading at grade-level by the end of the year if he started the school year reading at the second grade level. Value-added measures, on the other hand, are measures of growth; so they do take into account students’ levels of performance at the start of the year and for extended periods of time. Value-added measures can also adjust for special student characteristics such as limited English proficiency, or learning disabilities.
Louisiana’s proposed use of such an evaluation system has garnered the state an unprecedented amount of positive attention for public education. This is not to suggest, however, that the proposal has not been criticized by some. In fact, the Louisiana School Boards Association’s Board of Directors is cautioning local boards of education to “evaluate very carefully before making final decisions” to sign onto the state’s Race to the Top proposal, charging that the “changes proposed do not rest on proven research and have been challenged by well recognized national authorities.” Also, the Louisiana Educators Association (LEA), Louisiana’s largest professional educators organization, has voted to not endorse the state’s Race to the Top proposal, citing among other reasons, the State Superintendent’s and Department of Education’s unwillingness to work with them on the teacher evaluation process. LAE’s major dissatisfaction with the state’s proposed evaluation system is the percentage that the value-added measures would account for in teachers’ overall evaluation. The LA Department of Education has proposed that the value-added measures would account for one-half of teachers’ evaluation, while LAE leadership would prefer that the measures account for no more than one-third of teachers’ evaluations. Louisiana’s second largest teachers union, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers (LFT), also has disagreements with some of the particulars of the proposed evaluation system, but has chosen to remain engaged with the state in the development and refinement of the Race to the Top proposal, with LFT president Steve Monaghan reasoning that “Too many Louisiana children are too poor with needs too great to walk away from a share of the $4.4 billion Race to the Top funds.”
In the end, I have no doubt that Louisiana’s bid for Race to the Top funding will be successful and the state will probably go on to lead the nation in using student performance measures as a major component of teacher evaluation. While not perfect, the value-added measures represent not only a significant improvement over using absolute measures for teacher evaluation, but also a much more common sense approach to setting expectations for teachers. There is a widely-held misperception that teachers are flatly opposed to being held accountable for student performance. That is untrue for most teachers. What most teachers argue is that they should not be held accountable things that are beyond their control. A classroom teacher has no control over a students’ learning before coming to his or her classroom. Teachers also argue that special student circumstances such as disabilities and limited English proficiency must be factored into setting expectations. The use of value-added measures for teacher evaluation purposes moves us a step closer to being able to hold teachers accountable for student performance without making them the whipping children for factors that they truly have no control over.

Charter Schools- Bad Word In Kentucky

David Cook, the Kentucky State Department of Education’s advisor for the “Race to the Top” program, suggested Tuesday that Kentucky probably will have to make changes in school governance structures that at least resemble the charter school concept in order to get  “Race to the Top” funds. Currently, Kentucky’s school laws do not allow for the creation of charter schools. Cook suggested, however, that making changes to how school-based decision-making councils operate could give considerable freedom to the school councils of failing schools and put Kentucky in a better position to receive funding.

In the brief time that I’ve been in Kentucky, I’ve come to recognize that the term “charter school” is a bad word in some circles. But the reality is, and I’ve been saying this for some time now, the US Dept. of Education really likes the charter school concept as a strategy for turning around troubled schools. The specifics of charter school laws are different all across the country, but the basic idea is giving school leaders considerable decision-making power, and freeing them from many of the bureaucratic hurdles that traditional public schools have to jump through. To be honest, the charter school concept is not radically different from the school-based decision-making model already in place in Kentucky. School leaders/school councils already get considerably more discretion than traditional public school leaders in other states. 
We’ll see what happens, but I believe it would be a mistake to not make these minor changes and miss out on the biggest pot of federal dollars the US Department of Education has ever had to give away.

Kentucky Education Commissioner Optimistic About Receiving “Race to the Top” Funds

During a recent interview on KET’s (Kentucky Educational Television) “One to One with Bill Goodman,” Kentucky Education Commissioner Dr. Terry Holliday expressed optimism about the Commonwealth’s chances of getting federal funds in the US Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” competition. The commissioner cited the Gate’s foundation’s funding of a consulting firm to help Kentucky craft its “Race to the Top” application as evidence that Kentucky’s education reform efforts are recognized and appreciated nationally. When asked whether Kentucky being one only ten states not having charter school legislation might hurt the state’s chances of receiving fundings, Holliday said that he did not believe it would. He talked about the possibility of integrating successful school models like KIPP (Knowlege Is Power Program) schools into the school-based decision-making framework already in place in Kentucky as one strategy for turning around persistently failing schools, but he did not indicate that charter schools were on the horizon in Kentucky. While acknowledging that Kentucky nor any other state could be assured of receiving funds, Dr. Holliday said that he felt good about Kentucky’s chances. As a new Kentuckian, I hope he’s right.

Charter School Cap Could Deny North Carolina “Race to the Top” Funds

North Carolina’s interest in competing for funds through the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” contest has again brought the state’s charter school cap to the forefront of education policy discussion. In order to compete for funds, the contest requires states to submit plans for overhauling their education systems with specific components, one of which is easing restrictions on charter schools. North Carolina’s current charter school policy caps the number of charter schools that can be authorized at 100, and provides that no more than five charter schools may be authorized within a school district per year. Shortly after the passage of charter school legislation in 1996, charter school advocates started pushing the General Assembly to raise or remove the cap, arguing that it limits opportunities for the success of the state’s charter school movement. All attempts have thus far been unsuccessful.

Recognizing that the state’s charter school cap could put it out of the running for “Race to the Top” funds, earlier this month the governor, state superintendent, and chair of the State Board of Education wrote to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, “objecting to the emphasis on charters as the major tool for innovation” ( see newsobserver.com/news/education/story/1671514.html ). I sincerely doubt that their letters of disapproval will result in any changes in the contest’s requirements or lead to the Dept. of Education having leniency on North Carolina’s proposal. The irony of the situation is that it has been Democrats in North Carolina that have blocked all attempts to remove the cap. If North Carolina Democrats, who have controlled state government for the better part of the last 100 years, are determined to keep the cap on charter schools, they will be the reason for putting the state out of the running to receive a substantial boost in education funding from this Democratic presidential administration.
My gut feeling is that the enticement of “Race to the Top” funds could be enough to push the General Assembly to raise or remove the cap, which again is ironic since charter schools are seen largely as a conservative education reform in North Carolina. Go figure! To say the very least, the Obama Department of Education has redrawn the education reform battle lines.

President Obama’s “Race to the Top”

Last week President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the U.S. Department of Education’s new “Race to the Top” contest, giving states the opportunity to compete for $4.35 billion in federal education funding. In order to compete for funds, the contest requires states to submit plans for overhauling their education systems with specific components including linking teacher pay to student achievement, easing restrictions on charter schools, improving strategies for recruiting and retaining effective teachers, tracking student performance data, raising academic standards, and developing action plans for turning around failing schools. President Obama contends that research evidence points to these components as critical to improving student achievement.

The president referred to the contest as an example of “evidence-based” policy making. But the contest has already been and will continue to be quite politically controversial. Several of the contest’s requirements, namely merit pay for teachers tied to student performance and the expansion of charter schools, have been measures that teachers unions—traditional supporters of Democratic administrations—have fought against. President Obama has said that that there will undoubtedly be both winners and losers in the contest, and that politics will not come into play in deciding which states will be the winners of the funding. But as the 2012 presidential election approaches, is the promise that the “Race to the Top” will be insulated from politics a realistic one?

Denying education funding to electorally critical swing states whose reform plans might not meet the Department of Education’s requirements would take a lot of courage on the part of the Obama administration. That being said, including such requirements for state reform plans took courage. The president has shown since the 2008 primaries that he is not afraid to take education policy stances that conflict with positions of the traditional public education establishment which includes the NEA and the AFT. Only time will tell whether the Obama Department of Education will back down in the face of electoral threat, or states like Ohio and Pennsylvania will defy the wishes of politically powerful teachers unions and agree to make controversial reforms to be eligible for the contest’s funding. My guess is that the enticement of $4 billion in funding will be enough to at least push many states to attempt to make the reforms the President endorses, setting the stage for some very interesting state-level education policy battles.