Stumbling into the "Race to the Top"

With the first quarter of 2009 witnessing the sharpest decline in state tax receipts on record, it comes as no surprise that many states are scrambling to win federal "Race to the Top" dollars. The four-plus billion dollars in extra cash comes from Secretary Arne Duncan's discretionary kitty--and he's been very clear about what kinds of behaviors deserve to be rewarded.

Duncan's most-publicized comments have centered around raising state charter caps, but the Obama Administration and the stimulus legislation itself has four broader goals: 1) turning around low-performing schools (in part by expanding charter schools); 2) enacting rigorous (and preferably common) academic standards; 3) improving teacher quality and the equitable distribution thereof; and 4) beefing up state data systems. (We'll know more about the specifics tomorrow when the Race to the Top application is released.)

Some states, like Colorado, Florida, and Louisiana, seem to be sprinting towards their share of the money. Others, like Ohio, are stumbling into the sweepstakes. Where is the Buckeye State falling short and where is it making the grade? Let's take a look:

Charter schools and turnarounds
Falling Short. In both his 2007 and 2009 state biennium budget proposals, Ohio's Democratic Governor Ted Strickland sought to set back Ohio's charter school program big time. In fact, his budget proposals would have largely dismantled the state's program by creating a moratorium on new schools and imposing myriad regulatory provisions on those that already existed, good and bad alike.

Specifically, the governor's plan sought to bar high performers like KIPP and Building Excellent Schools from the state; prohibit for-profit operators of every sort (even decent ones like National Heritage Academies, K12, Connections Academy, and Edison); and reduce charter funding to all schools. Thankfully, these efforts to pulverize the state's charter program were resisted forcefully by House and Senate Republicans in both 2007 and in 2009.

Making the Grade. Because of staunch Republican support, Ohio's charter school program is still fairly welcoming to decent charter operators, though the state has maintained its ironclad moratorium on new virtual schools. Further, Ohio has implemented some of the most rigorous charter accountability policies in the country, including automatic school closure for those that are persistently failing.

Bottom line. Despite the best counter-efforts of the governor and leading Democratic lawmakers over the past few years, the Buckeye State is apt to be seen by the Obama administration as a fairly charter-friendly state.

Standards and accountability
Falling Short. Governor Strickland's 2009 budget proposal also sought to rewrite Ohio's academic standards and assessments so they would pay significantly more attention to so-called "21st Century skills"--e.g., media literacy, cultural awareness, adaptability, responsibility, etc.--than to the "three Rs" and actual knowledge. The governor got his way on this front with the passage of the state budget last week, and of the seven new legislative requirements facing Ohio's standards-setters, six deal with mandating that the state develop 21st Century skills, while only one deals with core content.

Making the Grade. Ohio has committed itself to working fully with the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers in the effort to create common academic standards, no doubt in part to position itself well in this Race to the Top. And the pragmatic folks at the Ohio Department of Education and the Ohio Board of Regents, who are tasked with redesigning the state's standards and assessments in a period of severe staffing shortages and budget cuts, are more than happy to collaborate wherever they possibly can.

Bottom line. Despite a new law that focuses almost exclusively on ill-defined, nebulous, and extremely hard-to-measure 21st Century skills, the practical realities of creating workable academic standards and aligned assessments in a brutal economic environment may very well result in Ohio getting this right if the national effort pays dividends.

Improving teacher quality
Falling Short. Ohio is a state with little appetite for merit pay. Currently, no school district has a merit pay plan in place. However, several are beginning to dabble in this area, including the state's largest district--Columbus City Schools. Governor Strickland's new school reform plan, however, does nothing to encourage it. In addition, Ohio maintains significant teacher certification barriers for the entry of such groups as Teach For America (TFA) and The New Teacher Project (TNTP).

Making the Grade. Under Ohio's new law, tenure decisions have been moved from the third year of a teacher's career to the seventh. This means that districts have more time to weed out bad apples before they get that coveted job protection. Since most teachers have hit their stride in the classroom by the sixth or seventh year, this provision is fairer than current practices because it allows rookie teachers to get their footing, and awards tenure on more than just surviving the first two or three years. Further, Ohio is starting to make a concerted effort to streamline the traditional teacher certification process so as to make it more appealing to non-traditional educators.   

Bottom Line. Governor Strickland has moved Ohio forward some with his teacher tenure changes and new teacher certification rules but falls short on merit pay and encouraging and supporting innovative teaching programs like TFA. Further, there is no linkage of data to teacher performance. These are issues stressed by Arne Duncan in recent months, but it remains to be seen if one will trump the other when it comes to doling out dollars.

Beefing up the state's data system
Making the Grade. This is an area where Ohio stands fairly strong. The state is a member of the Data Quality Campaign and has met eight of the Campaign's ten elements for quality longitudinal data systems. Further, the state has been at the forefront in the use of value-added achievement data and there seems to be a genuine commitment by political leaders and state policymakers to keep Ohio moving forward on this front even in tough economic times.

Bottom Line. Ohio will score well in this category.

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It's ironic. Economic and political events have conspired against Strickland, despite his best efforts, in such a way as to put the Buckeye State in a fairly decent position to tap into Race to the Top dollars. Largely because of push-back by Republicans (especially on charter school policy), this Democrat might receive a windfall of federal funds.

And of course there are the political considerations. The Obama Administration seems eager to give this swing state some of the cash, and to do everything it can to ensure that Governor Strickland is still Governor Strickland in 2012. (He's up for re-election in 2010.) This serendipity, combined with some of the Governor's own decent views on teacher quality and the effective use of data, should put Ohio in a formidable position for these federal school reform dollars, for better or for worse.

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