Wednesday, July 21, 2010

California reeling from Race to the Top's unintended consequences

Reflecting on John Fensterwald's spot-on analysis of California's on-going open enrollment mess, Jack writes:

As if parents didn’t have enough to look forward to in the coming school year, they now have another convoluted policy to contend with, sent from Sacramento with a shrug. Yet it’s unsurprising the state’s lawmakers failed to foresee the open enrollment mess as they scrambled in vain to secure Race to the Top funds in January. In the eleventh hour, with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, our legislators would have supported almost any bill with the words “accountability” and “choice” scattered through it. Therein lies the problem. 

As sloppy as Sen. Gloria Romero’s SBX5-4 has turned out to be, the true catalyst behind the resulting mess is not our state legislators, but really the Race to the Top initiative itself.  As schools with above average APIs of 800 are being classified as being among the state’s worst and high-performing principals and teachers are fired, we enter a strange, Ducanesque world of contradiction and paradox. Left is right, good is bad, and, most distressingly, success is failure.

There’s no other way of putting it: Race to the Top has hurt our schools. This high profile, high-stakes competition for cash left behind a legacy of incomplete state legislation across the country. It’s striking to think that with only 10% of the lowest performing schools being eligible for open enrollment, the remaining 90% will continue to struggle without a structural reform or funding increase in sight. Those hurt most will almost certain be those hurting now: low-income families of color.

Arne Duncan and the President have said time and again that this would be the true legacy of the initiative – convincing states to implement “groundbreaking reforms” through competition alone. The Federal government could turn around our nation’s struggling schools and improve student performance without articulating a clear policy vision, without bothering to really understand “what works,” and without spending more than a few billion dollars, nationwide.

That was the Race to the Top gimmick; California’s open enrollment debacle is the unacceptable result.