Race to the Top-Equity and Opportunity?

President Barack Obama recently announced a new initiative called Race to the Top-Equity and Opportunity.  The aims of the program are admirable.  The President wants to support states and districts in identifying and closing educational opportunity and achievement gaps (http://www.ed.gov/racetothetop-equity-opportunity).  The President, like many politicians and educators, recognizes that we need to do more to ensure that all students have access to rigorous coursework, positive school climates, equitable discipline policies, and a clear, supportive road to college and career readiness.

The President’s plan calls for $300 million in competitive grants for states that agree to enhance their data systems and develop comprehensive strategies to address achievement gaps.  The states would have to use their funds to strengthen teaching and school leadership.  The funds would also be used to attract and retain more effective teachers in high-need schools.  Additionally, the plan requires states to utilize fair formulas for the distribution of funds to schools.

So far, so good, although one could argue that incentivizing states is not the best way to reform schools.  The competitive grant process also has its detractors.  Will states rush to comply with the guidelines and begin implementing effective strategies to eliminate the achievement gap?  If they learned any lesson from the original Race to the Top efforts, they may wait a while before jumping for the carrot.

The President should be applauded for highlighting the need for creative solutions to eliminating the achievement gap.  If his plan works it will lead to the creation of model programs that other states and districts can look to for solutions.  Three hundred million dollars sounds like a solid investment towards that effort, but is it?  When you realize that there are over 11 million school-age children living in poverty in the United States (2011, US Census Report), the investment begins to look a little light.  The President’s proposal provides about $27.00 for every child living in poverty in the US.

Of course, the President’s plan does not aim to help all children.  It will only affect the children in states and districts that are willing to jump through a series of complex and rigid hoops.  The states with savvy policy makers and skilled grant writers will be at a significant advantage.  Meanwhile, the 11 million students living in poverty will see little or no change to their schools, at least not for some time.

No one should scoff at a $300 million dollar investment in education.  We should be grateful for every dollar that goes toward the future of our children.  Yet, somehow we continue to underfund the most important aspect of American culture, our schools.  How about a real effort toward strengthening our public community schools?  Not just some, but all of them.  While we are experimenting with plans like the President’s, what’s happening to the rest of our students?

The President’s plan specifically mentions that no child should suffer because of their wealth, home language, or zip code.  Unfortunately, his plan fails to address that goal for all students.  It falls short because it won’t impact enough students in a timely manner.  Twenty-seven dollars per child in poverty just won’t do that.  Our students deserve better before it’s too late.

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