When Education Secretary Arne Duncan first unveiled his Race to the Top (RttT) program in July of last year, he admitted that "when I was superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools, I did not always welcome calls from the U.S. Department of Education. That's because the department, from its inception in 1980, has traditionally been a compliance-driven agency." But, he continued, that was all about to change because his RttT program, funded by $4.35 billion of economic stimulus cash, would be a "competition" that scrutinized "state applications for a coordinated and deep-seated commitment to reform." He later added: "As I have said many times before, this isn't just about the money -- this is about working together and putting the needs of children ahead of everyone else."
Fast forward to this past Tuesday when Secretary Duncan identified the ten recipients of second round RttT funding that did not include the state of New Jersey, which fell just three points shy of the winners circle. The Newark Star-Ledger then revealed that a clerical error cost the state 4.8 points (out of 500 possible) because New Jersey's application submitted data comparing the 2010 and 2011 state budgets, not the 2008 and 2009 data that the application required. Wednesday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) accepted full responsibility for the error, but also used the incident to launch a trenchant critique of the entire program:
That's the stuff that drives people nuts about government and that's the stuff the Obama administration should answer for. Are you guys just down there checking boxes like mindless drones, or are you thinking? ... When the president comes back to New Jersey, he's going to have to explain to the people of the state of New Jersey why he's depriving them of $400 million that this application earned because one of his bureaucrats in Washington couldn't pick up the phone and ask a question, couldn't go on the Internet and find information.
Mindless box-checking is just the beginning of RttT's problems. When Tuesday's results were announced, the New Jersey Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, was quick to claim that it was Gov. Christie's failure to get "buy in" from unions on the application that ultimately cost the state millions in federal cash. Specifically, Gov. Christie's insistence on not caving-in to union demands that he weaken the state's teacher accountability standards lost him far more points than the clerical error did. And New Jersey was not the only state to lose out because of the Obama administration's slavish devotion to teacher union votes and cash. Proven education reform leaders like Louisiana and Colorado also lost points and finished out of the money because their state's chosen reforms threatened union priorities. Meanwhile Hawaii (which the Data Quality Campaign ranked 17th for education data systems, which the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranked 34th for the strength of their charter laws, and which got a D- from the National Council on Teacher Quality) finished third and will receive $75 million. Oh, but they had 100% "buy in" from the unions. So much for Secretary Duncan's claim that RttT was committed to "putting the needs of children ahead of everyone else."
As pernicious as teachers union influence has been on RttT, it is merely a symptom of the larger disease that is the top-down government bureaucracy approach to education. Secretary Duncan loves to talk about the "competition" that RttT has inspired among the states. But there is a fundamental difference between the competition for federal government funds and real market competition. When Apple competes for the mobile music industry, it does so by winning over consumers with a better product. When Amazon competes to become the leader in online retail, it does so by serving customers needs better. Not so with RttT.
As Gov. Christie points out, New Jersey's RttT application was over 1,000 pages long and took thousands of hours to complete. Instead of states spending their money and manpower to improve schools and educate children, the government asks them to put taxpayer dollars toward constructing massive grant applications. The incentives are all flowing in the wrong direction. Instead of focusing on making children and parents happy by devoting resources to make a better education product, states have been devoting resources to make Washington bureaucrats happy with a better grant application product. Filling out grant applications has never educated a single child anywhere ever. But grant applications are what RttT is all about, and they have made RttT the biggest waste of your education dollars ever.
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