Editorial: Threats to innovation

The unprecedented $100 billion in stimulus funding for education was only a stopgap measure that merely delayed the inevitable.
The unprecedented $100 billion in stimulus funding for education was only a stopgap measure that merely delayed the inevitable.

“Default Lines” column from eSchool News, May 2010—In his speech to school superintendents during the American Association of School Administrators’ annual conference in February, Education Secretary Arne Duncan argued that schools should have more flexibility in how they get all students to achieve.

“We should be tight on standards … but loose about how to get there,” he told the nation’s school leaders in outlining what he called the administration’s “guiding principles” for rewriting No Child Left Behind.

Unfortunately, that rhetoric doesn’t match reality.

Education Department (ED) officials might not be as prescriptive in telling the top-performing 95 percent of schools how they must meet tougher standards for student achievement under the Obama administration’s blueprint for school reform—but they’re very exacting when it comes to opening the federal purse strings.

So exacting, in fact, that in the first round of the much-anticipated “Race to the Top” competition for $4 billion in special stimulus funds, only two states—Delaware and Tennessee—met the administration’s stringent requirements.

In that first round, ED awarded only $600 million of its $4 billion carrot to entice broad school reforms. And though federal officials will collect a second round of applications for the highly selective program by June 1, many states are rethinking their desire to participate.

Colorado, which had hoped to win $377 million, finished in 14th place—and Gov. Bill Ritter Jr., who said the scoring by anonymous judges seemed inscrutable, reportedly had not decided whether to reapply for the second round as of press time.

“It was like the Olympic Games, and we were an American skater with a Soviet judge from the 1980s,” Ritter told the New York Times.

To help states as they prepare their Phase 2 proposals, ED has posted all Phase 1 applications, peer reviewers’ comments, and scores on its web site, as well as videos of states’ Phase 1 presentations. But in setting such a high bar to earn federal dollars for reform, the administration is excluding a number of states that could desperately use more money.

Our lead story on Page One shows why this is so disturbing: A new AASA survey reveals that school budget cuts will be noticeably more significant in 2010-11 than they were in the previous two years.

It appears the unprecedented $100 billion in stimulus funding for education was only a stopgap measure that merely delayed the inevitable—and now the dam is about to burst wide open.

Although President Obama’s FY 2011 budget requests $4 billion more for education than the previous year, the administration is proposing to shift a greater percentage of federal dollars from formula-based grants to competitive grants, like Race to the Top—a move that most school leaders vehemently oppose.

Because schools can’t count on receiving competitive grant dollars, this funding model causes uncertainty about school budgets and is unlikely to lead to the kind of long-term reform that federal officials are hoping for, superintendents say. Applying for competitive grants also requires resources that many schools just don’t have.

Lack of funding was one of the key concerns that educators cited in their responses to the new National Education Technology Plan (NETP), which the administration released in March.

In comments left on the NETP web site, some stakeholders wondered how they would be able to realize ED’s comprehensive vision for using technology to transform teaching and learning amid such a harsh budget climate. Others questioned what they saw as a fundamental conflict between the plan’s call for innovation on one hand and the administration’s continued focus on testing and accountability on the other.

More budget cuts will make it much harder for school leaders to innovate next year—and yet, there is a growing body of research to suggest that’s exactly what is needed to reach today’s students.

Dennis Pierce

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