Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Monday, January 18, 2010

On your mark, get set, GO

Democrats may be less than enthusiastic about President Obama’s Afghanistan troop surge, or his failure to deliver a health insurance public option, but there’s one area where Obama is getting it right -- education. If Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy was a magnifying glass, making the academic achievement gap between upper and lower income kids visible, then Obama’s Race to the Top (RTT) initiative is a toolbox, giving students, teachers and administrators the tools they need to make America’s kids the best in the world.

The timing is right. Just as states such as Washington are struggling to support their schools in a time of massive budget deficits, the U.S. Department of Education is offering states the opportunity to earn a chunk of its $4.3 billion Race to the Top funds. Unlike the federal stimulus money that softened the blow of the state budget ax last year, these funds aren’t free. Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are playing hard ball here, and strings are firmly attached.

We all know that change takes time. (How long have we been waiting for health reform?) President Obama is able to move serious, game-changing reform quickly through state legislatures by taking advantage of the current financial crisis and dangling money in front of states' noses.

Applications for the first phase of the Race to the Top program are due tomorrow, but there will be a second round closing on June 1. Competing states will be graded on how well they meet four parameters: adopting common standards and assessments, building data systems that measure student progress, training and developing great teachers and principals, and turning around low-achieving schools.

To be truly competitive for this award, Washington will have to pass legislation that even goes beyond the basic education reform passed last year. For a strong application, Washington will have to reconsider how it recruits and evaluates teachers, increase its standards for high school graduation, and allow the state to intervene in low-performing schools. That’s a tall order for one short legislative session.

Even if Washington fails to secure a piece of the RTT funds, Obama’s education goals aren’t going away. The Department of Education will continue to tempt and prod states to move down the path of reform. Race to the Top is just one part of the president’s plan to improve the American education system. Investing in early learning and making higher education more accessible are the other key pieces.

President Obama may not have been leading the charge for health reform, but on education he is way out in front: shaking up the status quo and motivating states with Democratic and Republican-led governments alike, to see who can out-reform the other.

Now that’s a change agent. That’s real leadership.


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