President Obama's 'Race to the Top' program aims to give kids from poorer neighborhoods the same educational opportunities as those from more priviledged backgrounds

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Obama creates competition
to improve public schools

By Tony Favro, USA Editor

2 July 2010: When only two states – Delaware and Tennessee – were awarded funding in the first round of Race to the Top education funding, most US mayors were undaunted. “We will never give up,” former Tulsa, Oklahoma, Mayor Kathy Taylor said of her state’s initial failure. “We will be competitive in the second round.”

| Federal education reforms | Local v Federal | Gaps between rich and poor | Obama’s approach |

As part of his 2009 stimulus package, US President Obama created Race to the Top as a competition to reward states with the most ambitious and comprehensive plans for improving public schools. States, in consultation with local school districts, were invited to propose strategies for expanding charter schools, utilizing performance pay for teachers, and implementing other state- and locally-developed innovations to improve student outcomes. At stake is US$4.35 billion in federal Race to the Top funds to help local school districts overhaul their K-12 programs. “It’s a new opportunity,” notes Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “Rising dropout rates and declining student performance has reached a crisis level. We need a statewide approach to this problem.”

Federal education reforms
Former US President George W Bush enacted the largest federal aid to education act in US history. No Child Left Behind, as it is called, requires states to develop standardized basic math and literacy skills tests for all students in certain grades. Teachers must achieve “highly qualified” status in their subject areas. The goal is to have all children in all public schools be proficient in reading and math, as measured by test scores, by 2014. While lauded for its focus on performance, No Child Left Behind is criticized for not providing adequate resources for schools to meet the high demands placed on them by the federal government.

The Obama administration is re-writing No Child Left Behind so that student achievement would be assessed by multi-year rather than single-year evaluations. It would also create tiers of schools, with performance benchmarks and reform options tailored to the needs of schools within each tier. With a revised and more flexible No Child Left Behind and competition for Race to the Top funds, the Obama administration hopes to spark state and local innovation in the way public education is delivered.

It’s a “once in a generation chance to bring more innovation into our system,” says Mayor Tom Menino of Boston, and promises “a new era of education.”

While it is too soon to know how No Child Left Behind will fare in the US Congress, it is clear that the federal government will be more involved than ever in local public schools.

Local control / Federal influence
States are responsible for public education in the United States. The states, in turn, give local school districts great latitude in running their schools. Local voters elect school board members to govern the schools, and school funding comes primarily from local property taxes.

Because the majority of funding comes from local taxes, the wealth of the district in which a student lives largely determines the quality of his or her school. This creates enormous disparities in educational attainment between middle-class and poor communities.

State funds – theoretically – are supposed to help balance the inequity in funding that exists between school districts. Over the past 30 years, however, 36 state public education finance systems have been challenged in court for perpetuating, rather than mitigating, funding inequity. Eighteen state finance systems have been declared unconstitutional, and 18 have been upheld. The litigation has served to spotlight the inability of states to achieve greater equity on their own – hence, the growing influence of the federal government.

While the US Constitution does not require the federal government to educate its citizens, it does require equitable treatment in all walks of life. Currently, the federal government accounts for less than 10 per cent of public school funding. But the federal government can make the rules, and when federal funding is contingent on doing things a certain way the cherished American tradition of local control of public education can become strained.

Unlike the other 48 states, Texas and Alaska decided not to apply for Race to the Top funds because of the strings attached. A handful of mayors also want their cities’ school districts to assert their independence. Mayor Virg Bernero of Lansing, Michigan, for example, has called on the federal government to “get off the backs of teachers with programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.”

Gaps between rich and poor
The gap between high-poverty school districts and low-poverty school districts is the core of the issues surrounding funding and achievement equity at all levels – local, state, and federal. Studies show that it is not enough for schools burdened by very high poverty to get the same funding as low-poverty districts. They need more resources to help compensate for the disadvantages students bring to school. As long as schools rely on local funding, many communities will not be able to afford to educate their children properly. However, there doesn’t appear to be a viable alternative to local funding. Most states are reeling from budget crises and have decreased financial support for education. And it’s not at all clear that citizens would approve of the federal government taking over the funding of education, perhaps through the income tax.

In addition to gaps in funding and student performance, there are gaps in the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. Despite an enormous amount of research, there are not many programs that one can say definitively will make a difference in the educational outcomes of students with multiple disadvantages. Using education to combat deeply entrenched social problems means that complicated analytical issues, difficult policy issues, and complex legal issues all have to be sorted out – something that no school superintendent, mayor, educator, scholar, policy maker, or think tank has yet accomplished. This doesn’t mean that current policies are failures, but that the problem is enormous and will take a long time to figure out.
There are no quick fixes.

Obama’s approach
The Obama administration, with Race to the Top and the revised No Child Left Behind, hopes that local- and state-proposed interventions backed by significant federal resources will create a bank of cumulative knowledge and best practices that will help states and school districts make effective choices.

Most US urban mayors are accustomed to experimenting and innovating to solve difficult problems and appear comfortable with President Obama’s approach. As Clayton, North Carolina, Mayor Jodi McCleod says, “At each school, Race to the Top funding will be used to develop, conduct, and promote learning so that no child or educator is excluded from receiving a top-notch education.”

Applications for the second round of Race to the Top funding were due 1 June 2010, with awards expected to be announced in September.

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