race to the race to the top

When Race to the Top collides with states' rights, debate follows

Teachers unions, school district officials, and lawmakers have all weighed in on New York State’s Race to the Top application with varying degrees of skepticism and enthusiasm, but few have given any thought to the legal issues behind the experiment.

Last night, students at Columbia Law School held a panel discussion on Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s competitive grant program that, in its first round, will award several states hundreds of millions of dollars to adopt the Obama administration’s education policies. The question put before the panel is one any federal initiative like Race to the Top is apt to bring up: Is this experiment stepping too heavily on states’ policy toes?

The panelists included Marcus Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Deborah Meier, a columnist for Education Week, James Liebman, a law school professor and the NYC Department of Education’s former accountability chief, Richard Iannuzzi, president of the state teachers union, and Dan Weisberg, a vice president at The New Teacher Project.

Some, like Liebman, argued that for too long, the federal government has been powerless over states’ education policies because it doles out so little of what school districts spend. Much of that changed when the stimulus package arrived and the size of Duncan’s budget suddenly increased.

“The federal government could say to a school that’s failing all of its African American children, go ahead, we’ll keep funding you, or we’re going to take the money away completely,” Liebman said.

“Now they’re trying to find a way to influence policy where they have limited tools,” he said.

For Liebman, Race to the Top is part of Duncan’s responsibility to see that all schools are giving students a basic civil right: a good education.

Iannuzzi, president of the New York State United Teachers, said that the problem with Race to the Top is not its goals, but the cut-throat nature of the competition.

At a time when states are desperate for money and are laying off teachers, is it fair to heavily incentivize the adoption federal education policies with a hefty grant, he asked.

“States are basically surrendering their right to create education policy to the federal government because of the need to chase those dollars,” Iannuzzi said.

Iannuzzi said that New York State’s own application prioritized ways of removing bad teachers from the classroom and expanding merit pay over other policies that would improve the effectiveness of teachers already in the system.

“When I asked about this, the answer the Commissioner [David Steiner] gave me is: ‘I don’t have the money to do the rest of it. This is the only part I could do. So if I do this part, maybe my application does better,'” Iannuzzi said. “What’s driving policy isn’t the totality that the commissioner will admit is the best.”

Meier of Education Week said she was also concerned about the race part of Race to the Top.

“I think that at a time in history when our regular public schools are losing more and more of their funds, it’s an odd phenomena to be giving rewards for a competition between people not to get better schools, but for the purpose of trying to get more money,” Meier said.

Responding to the criticism that Race to the Top may advance a handful of states but leave the rest as they are now, Weisberg of The New Teacher Project — a nonprofit group founded by D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee — said the competition’s winners would become “proof points,” for other states to model.

“That should create the leverage on places that haven’t joined this race to duplicate and replicate what’s going on,” he said.

that was weird

The D.C. school system had a pitch-perfect response after John Oliver made #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter

Public education got some unexpected attention Sunday night when John Oliver asked viewers watching the Emmys to make #DCPublicSchools trend on Twitter.

Oliver had been inspired by comedian Dave Chappelle, who shouted out the school system he attended before he announced an award winner. Within a minute of Oliver’s request, the hashtag was officially trending.

Most of the tweets had nothing to do with schools in Washington, D.C.

Here are a few that did, starting with this pitch-perfect one from the official D.C. Public Schools account:

Oliver’s surreal challenge was far from the first time that the late-show host has made education a centerpiece of his comedy — over time, he has pilloried standardized testing, school segregation, and charter schools.

Nor was it the first education hashtag to take center stage at an awards show: #PublicSchoolProud, which emerged as a response to new U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, got a shoutout during the Oscars in February.

And it also is not the first time this year that D.C. schools have gotten a surprise burst of attention. The Oscars were just a week after DeVos drew fire for criticizing the teachers she met during her first school visit as secretary — to a D.C. public school.

Startup Support

Diverse charter schools in New York City to get boost from Walton money

PHOTO: John Bartelstone
Students at Brooklyn Prospect Charter School in 2012. The school is one of several New York City charters that aim to enroll diverse student bodies.

The Walton Family Foundation, the philanthropy governed by the family behind Walmart, pledged Tuesday to invest $2.2 million over the next two years in new charter schools in New York City that aim to be socioeconomically diverse.

Officials from the foundation expect the initiative to support the start of about seven mixed-income charter schools, which will be able to use the money to pay for anything from building space to teachers to technology.

The effort reflects a growing interest in New York and beyond in establishing charter schools that enroll students from a mix of backgrounds, which research suggests can benefit students and is considered one remedy to school segregation.

“We are excited to help educators and leaders on the front lines of solving one of today’s most pressing education challenges,” Marc Sternberg, the foundation’s K-12 education director and a former New York City education department official, said in a statement.

Walton has been a major charter school backer, pouring more than $407 million into hundreds of those schools over the past two decades. In New York, the foundation has helped fund more than 100 new charter schools. (Walton also supports Chalkbeat; read about our funding here.)

Some studies have found that black and Hispanic students in charter schools are more likely to attend predominantly nonwhite schools than their peers in traditional schools, partly because charter schools tend to be located in urban areas and are often established specifically to serve low-income students of color. In New York City, one report found that 90 percent of charter schools in 2010 were “intensely segregated,” meaning fewer than 10 percent of their students were white.

However, more recently, a small but rising number of charter schools has started to take steps to recruit and enroll a more diverse student body. Often, they do this by drawing in applicants from larger geographic areas than traditional schools can and by adjusting their admissions lotteries to reserve seats for particular groups, such as low-income students or residents of nearby housing projects.

Founded in 2014, the national Diverse Charter Schools Coalition now includes more than 100 schools in more than a dozen states. Nine New York City charter groups are part of the coalition, ranging from individual schools like Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn to larger networks, including six Success Academy schools.

“There’s been a real shift in the charter school movement to think about how they address the issue of segregation,” said Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank that promotes socioeconomic diversity.

The Century Foundation and researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University and Temple University will receive additional funding from Walton to study diverse charter schools, with the universities’ researchers conducting what Walton says is the first peer-reviewed study of those schools’ impact on student learning.