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What Race to the Top Could Learn from Youth Soccer Leagues

Op-ed:

What Race to the Top Could Learn from Youth Soccer Leagues

By. Gov. Bob Wise

This year the elimination process known as March Madness extends to more than college basketball. Basketball takes 65 teams and eventually ends up with one winner. The Race to the Top (RTT) contest, a $4.35 billion competitive grant program under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), takes 40 applying states and the District of Columbia and ends up with a handful of winners.

So what is the major difference between March Madness for basketball and education? Basketball does not depend on the Congress to continue the tournament next year.

The announcement last week of the 16 RTT finalists—with only half as many likely to be announced winners—points out an even higher level of urgency for the Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) before the end of 2010. Many states-winners and losers-have made major investments of time, energy, and political capital to qualify for a portion of the $4.35 billion in discretionary federal funds. The sustainability of their efforts will depend on whether the Congress acts affirmatively to continue the stimulus package’s RTT initiatives. Without positive congressional action, RTT and the other initiatives designed to spur change, such as the Innovation grants and the Teacher Incentive grants, simply become one-time contests.

The fact that 40 states and the District of Columbia applied for the RTT funds-with many making major changes in traditional education policy in order to qualify-shows how a relatively small amount of federal dollars strategically applied in an era of steep budget shortfalls can force changes that were unthinkable only a few years ago. At a recent National Governors Association meeting, one governor humorously congratulated Education Secretary Arne Duncan for creating more widespread change in the states, without yet spending one dollar, just by publishing the RTT guidelines.

First-round winners will be announced in April. A second round will follow with all RTT funds being allocated by September 30, 2010, the expiration of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. So perhaps 7 to 8 winners will emerge in April; maybe 8 to 10 more in the second round.

Is this enough to make the Congress act to embed RTT goals and approaches into the ESEA foundation? And what motivates the Congress to act quickly enough in a bipartisan manner so that the RTT goals do not expire when the stimulus funding expires in seven months?

At the risk of sounding too political (heavens, not here in Washington), I want to urge the Congress to recognize states making a genuine effort. The more states that win something, the more that have a stake in the new system going forward rather than the old system with which they are familiar. It’s a bit like a soccer league for six-year-olds; every child who makes an effort receives an award. Some get a bigger trophy; some go on to be higher performers, but everyone who shows up at least gets attention. And most of them come back to play soccer for many more years.

An old highway story is relevant here. Transportation legend has it that when Louisiana passed a bond issue to fund the first 50 miles of paved road, the highway commissioner approached Governor Huey Long for direction on where to build the first 50-mile segment. The ever-savvy Long declined constructing a single 50-mile segment; instead he ordered 50 one-mile segments all across the state. The idea was that once voters everywhere got a taste of a good road, they would quickly approve funding to build more.

While some may be offended by my mixing the strategies of concrete with classrooms, what is critical is building support for extending the reforms sought by RTT. By the time the appropriations committees are marking up the education appropriation, only the first round of RTT winners will have been announced. Let’s say seven states are happy; that leaves 43 states feeling glum. I don’t have to score above Level 2 on the PISA exam to do the political math on the likelihood of the Congress appropriating further funding for RTT. Better the predictable funding formula you know than the competitive one you don’t.

So here is my suggestion for the Department: Make the first round about the truly top applicants. These should be the shining examples for what all states should strive to accomplish. Make the second round also about high performers. But also set aside a series of awards, perhaps one million dollars each, for states that are making a good faith effort and can use the dollars for increased planning and implementation for the next round. So now there are as many as 15 winners in the first two rounds, and also 25 recognition awards. Hmmmm, now 40 states—with 80 percent of the House and Senate—are feeling invested in this new system.

With basketball, we know that March Madness ends with just one winner—and no one doubts next year’s tournament. If conducted well, Race to the Top produces clear winners, keeps many others in the game, and also comes back for many more years.

Categories: Race to the Top

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