The Double-Edged Politics of RTT

(This post also appears at Rick Hess Straight Up.)

States are wrestling with Race to the Top implementation. In Georgia, a superintendent drew attention by announcing that the district would forego more than a million bucks in RTT cash rather than adopt merit pay. Questions abound as to whether D.C., with a new mayor and no permanent state chief, is committed to its plan. Ohio’s new governor has indicated he’s skeptical about various promises made by his predecessor. D.C. insiders think there’s a fair shot that the House will hold hearings looking into concerns about RTT judging, scoring, and spending. In short, the over-the-top hosannas for RTT have given way to serious doubts about how it will ultimately play out.

Some may think this a startling turn of events; but Drew University Professor Patrick McGuinn helps sort things out in his incisive, just-published white paper “Creating Cover and Constructing Capacity: Assessing the Origins, Evolution, and Impact of Race to the Top.” McGuinn, author of No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 1965 -2005, argues that RTT’s splashy impact and the questions about its future are bound by a common thread. (Full disclosure: McGuinn’s paper was commissioned for and published by my AEI shop’s “Education Stimulus Watch” series.)

McGuinn notes, “While much of the focus on RTT’s impact has been on policy, its role as a discourse changer in education may ultimately prove more important.” McGuinn argues that RTT has been fairly credited with spurring a fundamental shift in the shape of ed reform at the local, state, and federal levels. Beyond some specific legislative victories, RTT “shifted the focus of federal education policy from the laggards to the leaders.” This offers reformers the cover to make big strides.

The spotlight and the ambitious requirements prompted states to propose expansive, expensive plans–but that makes implementation a particularly daunting challenge. McGuinn explains that the “fundamental duality of RTT” is that “it seeks transformation but must do so in the short term largely through existing political and institutional constraints; it hopes to build new state capacity but must do so while overcoming existing capacity limitations. It is one thing for RTT to secure promises of state action, another thing for states to deliver promised action, and another thing entirely for their action to result in improvements in educational outcomes.”

McGuinn cautions against undue optimism and warns that the willingness of the feds to adopt a hard-nosed stance will be crucial to the fate of RTT. While political pressures may tempt ED to go easy on states struggling to implement their plans, effective political cover demands a firm stance. Success requires that ED be “willing to withhold federal funds from states that fail to uphold the promises in their RTT applications.” This will be tough, he says, because states have long proven “extraordinarily adept at finding ways to redirect the river of federal funding toward state priorities and away from meaningful reform.”

For all the ink that has been spilt on the excitement and ins-and-outs of RTT, McGuinn concludes, “Despite all the talk about RTT creating a revolution in education, the success of the program will ultimately depend on the political will of state policymakers, the capacity of district administrators to implement RTT effectively, and the ability of the Department of Education to hold states to their commitments.” Bottom line: we’ll see what happens now.

-Frederick Hess

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