Reimagining Education

As Starting Gun Sounds, Is Missouri Ready to Run the Race to the Top?

On July 24th President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan kicked off the long awaited Race to the Top fund. The fund is a historic nationwide competition for states that lead the way in education reform and innovation, backed by money from the stimulus package signed into law earlier in the year. The Race to the Top fund, and some other stimulus backed programs, are broken down into the specific areas of Investing in Innovation, Teacher Incentive Fund, State Longitudinal Data Systems, Title I School Improvement Grants and State Educational Technology Grants.

While all interested parties in applying for these dollars are still reviewing the requirements and procedures, one thing is clear. States who are interested in implementing reforms that work for children are going to be at a major competitive advantage to receive funds. Secretary Duncan has repeatedly stated that lifting caps on charter schools is one example of necessary reforms. He has also stood toe- to- toe with the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association and promoted real merit pay systems that attract and retain quality teachers.

On a recent webinar, in which I participated and tweeted during, that went into great detail on the funds and the criteria for applying, two criteria were specifically highlighted and broken down into two components. The first component was labeled State Reform Conditions, defined by the moderator as “what have you done?” The second component was labeled Reform Plan and defined as “what are you planning to do?” The Power Point presentation delivered by the moderator also specifically listed two of the three purposes of the program as “driving education reform” and increasing transparency.”

All of these programs seem to be on the right track by requiring reforms that benefit students and their families which begs the question, is Missouri ready to run the Race to the Top? While Missouri has already received $505 million in stimulus funds to stabilize the state’s education budget, much more is available and the receipt of these funds were based on promises of reform. Currently, the state barely hits on some of the major reforms that President Obama and Secretary Duncan have stressed in order to have an advantage when applying for the funds. The only semblance of a merit pay program that the state legislature has passed was in Senate Bill 291 during the 2009 session, but it is limited to only the St. Louis Public School district and still must be funded by the 2010 budget. The Ladue School District is the only district in the state that has self implemented a performance pay system.

Furthermore, the state has imposed geographic caps on charter public schools, considered an “artificial cap,” which Secretary Duncan has spoken negatively about. Present legislation authorizing charter public schools limits them to the St. Louis and Kansas City Public School Districts. This is despite the fact that some districts, like Riverview Gardens, near these two districts are failing and unaccredited or provisionally accredited. Residents in other Missouri cities, like Columbia, in the state are also calling for charter public schools in their communities.

Parents and families in Missouri can only hope that the state will heed President Obama and Secretary Duncan’s warnings about stimulus money being tied to reforms. This would require the state to make significant reforms as soon as possible. Expanding merit pay programs and lifting caps on charter schools is a start. Also, looking to other states for successful, new ideas that have been praised by President Obama and Secretary Duncan is a must. One example of this is in Florida where they have launched a system for data collection that tracks performance by student and ties that performance to a teacher. Obama and Duncan have been so impressed by the system, that they invited Flordia Education Commissioner Eric Smith to speak at the Race to the Top unveiling.

To let this grand opportunity for education reform in Missouri pass would do a great disservice to Missouri families and children. Let’s hope that education reform in Missouri wins the day and that the state earns our fair share of Race to the Top funds as a result. It is a race Missouri’s students can’t afford to lose.

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