Substance over form

So why did Tennessee and Delaware win in the first round of Race to the Top? The growing consensus is that the crucial factor was “stakeholder support” (buy-in from unions, districts, etc.). Each was able to get all of its districts and virtually all of its unions (Tennessee got 93 percent) to sign on to the state’s proposal.

This interpretation is not wholly unwarranted. There are a significant number of RTTT points tied directly to stakeholder support, and some peer reviewers downgraded applications in other states for insufficient buy-in. Moreover, in his earliest comments on announcement day, Secretary Duncan emphasized Tennessee’s and Delaware’s respective ability to craft statewide plans that earned the unions’ benediction. (In fact, the administration seemed to back away from this line of argument only when observers noted that elevating stakeholder support has a dangerous consequence: It gives them a virtual veto over state plans.)

But the story is more complicated than “anti-reform stakeholders triumph.” As I noted immediately after the awards were announced, support isn’t everything. A number of states with 100 percent buy-in from unions and districts didn’t win because their proposals were weak on substance. Likewise, a number of states with little buy-in did quite well because they promised major reforms.

So on the whole, which is more important? Substance.

Yes, Tennessee and Delaware scored highly in the “state success factors” category (where stakeholder support is embedded), besting frontrunners Florida, Louisiana, and Rhode Island, which had less support.

But they also had consistently high scores in other key categories. Florida lost significant points in the data, teachers, and failing-schools sections. Louisiana came up short in the standards, data, and STEM sections. Rhode Island lost big on data and charter schools.

These states could recoup many more points by focusing on serious reform instead of greater stakeholder buy-in. Watering down a proposal to generate buy-in is not a path to success. Indeed, Colorado, which publicly backed away from teacher reforms in order to appease stakeholders, was severely penalized in the teachers section, scoring fourteenth out of sixteen finalists. Kentucky was able to generate perfect union and district support by, among other things, rejecting charter legislation in advance of the filing deadline. But that cost it 32 points that would have put the Bluegrass State in the winner’s circle.

In my view, the administration erred by granting so many points to stakeholder support. Though broad buy-in facilitates program implementation, requiring it empowers groups traditionally hostile to reform (as Finn argues above).

But states willing to be bold on reform can win without tons of buy-in because there are plenty of points to be had elsewhere. My advice going forward is for states to totally commit to reform, maximize those points, and then build as large a coalition as possible around that bold plan—not the reverse order.

If a state follows that path and still loses in round two due to lost points attributable to recalcitrant stakeholders, its frustration would be justified. But that’s extraordinarily unlikely because it would mean at least fifteen other states crafted remarkably bold plans and managed comprehensive stakeholder support. (Duncan has intimated that as many as fifteen states will win in round two.) If that happens, Race to the Top will have been a stunning success, and we would find ourselves hard-pressed to complain.

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