"Race to the Top" Consensus Approach Disappoints: Who Really Wins?

Yesterday the state of Colorado turned in its Race to the Top grant funding application to the U.S. Department of Education. Missing the opportunity to do something bold, Colorado instead opted for “consensus” and “collaboration” — as reported by Jeremy Meyer in the Denver Post. Some of my older friends in the Education Policy Center are less surprised by this development than I am.

Still, whether it jeopardizes our chances to win some of the federal cash or not, this approach is disappointing. One of the greatest statesmen (or women) who ever lived, Margaret Thatcher, famously once said: “Consensus is the negation of leadership.” An opportunity for greater leadership was missed. We may still win some money because very few other states opted to be bold either — and in comparison we could look pretty good. But that doesn’t cut it for me.

What’s filled with irony is the fact that education officials and advocacy groups can’t even be consistent on the collaboration and consensus. Why? As Denise at Colorado Charters has explained, “There are no requirements in grant competition guidelines for states to share stimulus money with charter schools. In Colorado, that means most charter schools won’t see any of the money they helped bring to the state.” So much for promoting widespread reform and requiring states to be charter-friendly to get a share of the money.

Meanwhile, as Jay Greene and Stuart Buck argue over at National Review, school districts all over the country have been shielded from the recession’s effects on private businesses: “to reduce payrolls forces employers to cut ineffective workers and come out of the recession leaner and stronger.” Tough choices have been scrupulously avoided. As a result, to win broad support for the grant application, Colorado officials decided to create a council “to figure out how to link teacher pay, retention, dismissal and tenure to student academic growth” instead of just doing it.

The status quo combined with a few plodding, watered-down “reforms” may benefit some of the adults who work in the system, but are we really pursuing the best path that serves students’ needs and honors the will of taxpaying citizens? The more Race to the Top money ends up backfilling budgets rather than sparking real reform, the more well-deserved outrage there will be. You can bet I’ll be watching to see how this situation unfolds.