Race to the Top grants would drag down schools

The race wouldn’t lead to the top

Despite considerable pres- sure from state officials, Youngstown’s teachers union, like half of Ohio’s school districts, said no to the federal “Race to the Top” grant program. I would be glad to offer an explanation: The program is riddled with controversy, and unlikely to ease local budget concerns.

The fraction of funding available to local districts would be tightly tied to certain objectives — teacher education programs and test development — rather than the myriad costs already straining school budgets. In Youngstown, where employees have received years of targeted professional development, teachers have called, “Enough already!”

The general public may be unaware that Race to the Top represents an historic shift in federal spending for education. It will replace the prior federal practice of providing additional funds to the neediest locations with a sort of political imitation of the game show, “Family Feud,” featuring state teams who strive to win points for their own application by most closely matching their responses to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s reform proposals. The grant requirements led Gov. Strickland to accede to changes in Ohio’s carefully constructed education plan, so that his team can congratulate themselves on a “good answer!” Yet, Duncan’s proposed reforms, including increasing standardized test stakes and proliferation of charter schools, have long been opposed by public educators as distortions of appropriate K-12 education.

Under the grant, districts and their local unions will have to open contracts and renegotiate touchy issues related to evaluation and compensation of teachers. For most cash-strapped districts, this is no time to offer bonuses or commissions when teachers raise a class’s test scores. Just completing the paperwork of the required plan will stress budgets. Ohio Superintendent Deborah Delisle has admitted that despite the addition of funding minimums, districts’ participation costs may exceed grant funding levels.

Education Week’s “Quality Counts 2010” report ranked Ohio’s educational system fifth in the nation. Yet the federal government demanded of all states the names of an arbitrary 5 percent of schools to be closed, and got a list of about 65 Ohio schools.

Especially in a recession, respect is due to districts and unions who said “no” because principles of authentic quality instruction outweighed a grab for short-term dollars.

Peggy Palma, Youngstown