Race to the Cash Crop
I’m not sure one has to be a conspiracy theorist to think that government policies have become little more than a series of scams perpetrated on the American people. Take Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top concoction. Sure, there’s some favorable nods in the direction of reform and school choice, but those nods may be easily dispersed when eyes turn away. And even up front, as Frederick Hess points out, they aren’t really the meat in the stew:
A few of the 19 priorities rewarded states for moving on measures such as charter schooling and merit pay, with states earning 40 points (out of a maximum total of 500) for supporting high-performing charters and 58 points for using student-achievement results to improve teacher and principal effectiveness. But the vast majority of the points are awarded for compliance with often woolly federal criteria: 65 points for articulating an agenda and securing local buy-in, 10 points for prioritizing education funding, 20 points for providing effective support to educators, and so on. If you’re not entirely sure what these categories entail, welcome to the club; they reward states for procuring signatures of union support, for spending more on schools, and for adopting impressive-sounding professional schemes.
Andy Smarick, a Bush Education Department veteran who has painstakingly reported on RTTT, recently observed, “All this talk about revolutionary state change has really been overstated.” While RTTT enthusiasts talk of states’ lifting caps on charter schooling or removing “firewalls” that prevent student-achievement data from being linked to teachers, he noted that “the full story of states’ legislative changes is more complex and less exhilarating.” No state that previously prohibited charter schooling has enacted a new charter law to attract RTTT funds, and while Wisconsin technically relaxed its data firewall, it still prohibits student achievement from being used in teacher evaluations. Smarick explained this resistance to major changes as a consequence of union influence: “The problem is how much states had to give up to get that union support and buy-in.”
Take away the catchy buzz words meant to disarm natural opponents of schemes implemented by and for big, centralized government and what you’ve got is a huge bundle of money being used to persuade state and local officials and bureaucrats to seek special-interest buy-in.