'Race to the Top' well-minded, but poorly executed

Friday, July 31, 2009

Maybe the theory of probabilities was in play. Perhaps the stars were aligned just so. Whatever the reason, I have found myself agreeing with President Obama. Well, let me qualify that. I agree with the spirit of the initiative, not necessarily the implementation.

I'm talking about President Obama's recent unveiling of the "Race to the Top" fund. Obama has put over $4 billion of stimulus money on the table for those states that will do what's necessary to improve education. Obama believes that the expansion of charter schools and tying teacher pay to student performance are two critical pieces of the puzzle. I happen to agree. It's time we start holding teachers responsible for the students they teach.

Now, I know all the old excuses. Not every child comes prepared to learn. There are some things simply out of the teacher's control. These are valid arguments but there are ways to quantify how far a teacher has taken a student. One way is to test the child at various points during the school year to see how far along the teacher has taken that child. There will certainly be students that have no desire to advance but, overall, the process will not only make the teachers more accountable, it will pinpoint problems with individual kids or individual teachers before problems become insurmountable.

Teachers' unions are sure to be up in arms over the president's proposal. They have long fought direct accountability. It has been a way to insulate bad teachers. This program will not completely break the stranglehold the unions have on education but it might loosen it a bit. Charter schools, which are a key ingredient of this program, operate without much of the constraints of traditional schools and are thus able to implement some much needed changes that have a direct impact on better results in the classroom. Charter schools also tend to attract the parents who really care about their kids' education.

Now for the downside.

I've never been a big fan of the federal government sticking its nose into education. Education is, constitutionally, a state issue. Schools are best run on the state and local level. Although the president is trying to create competition among the states for this stimulus money that competition should be taking place between counties, not states. Whether or not you send your kids to the public schools or even have kids you certainly understand the value of a strong public school system. Strong schools attract business and homeowners. One needs only look around one's own area to see that the counties and/or cities with strong public schools are the counties and/or cities where everyone wants to live.

More growth means a stronger tax base that can continue building better schools. There's a misconception that counties with great schools started out that way because they had the money. Many counties made it a priority to have the best schools knowing that they would attract the tax base they needed to keep it all going.

Counties that prioritize differently by blowing their money on race tracks or arenas shouldn't complain when the dust settles and people are packing up for the counties that paid more attention to their schools.

I applaud the president for his goal of seeing more charter schools and holding teachers more responsible for their students. I just think that needs to come from the governor and not the president. The problem is accountability. No Child Left Behind had similar lofty goals but ended up so "cookie cutter" that it, in many cases, became counter-productive. We should learn that lesson.