Obama’s school grants reveal how far behind Maine lags

Posted Jan. 18, 2010, at 5:33 p.m.

In his Jan. 9 column “Education reform requires more than taking potshots,” Bangor teacher Adam Leach expressed his displeasure with a recent Bangor Daily News editorial by attacking me and my employer, the Maine Heritage Policy Center. Being a “conservative think tank,” we are, he claims, the “wrong people” to “shape public opinion about education.”

So who are the right people?

How about President Barack Obama? On teacher effectiveness and accountability, he has been saying pretty much exactly what we have been saying at the Maine Heritage Policy Center. In a major speech on education last year, the president said highly effective teachers should be “rewarded with more money for improved student achievement, and asked to accept more responsibilities for lifting up their schools.” The president added that making our schools better also means steps should be taken “to move bad teachers out of the classroom.”

The president has put a considerable amount of taxpayer money where his mouth is. States across the nation are preparing their applications for the Race to the Top grant, a $4.3 billion federal education initiative designed to “reform our schools and challenge an educational status quo that is failing too many of our children.”

In order to be competitive for funding from this multibillion-dollar grant program, states must demonstrate that they are good places to invest federal education reform dollars. To find out, the U.S. Department of Education developed a 103-page grant application that states will be required to complete in order to be considered for Race to the Top funding.

Like most conservatives, I have significant reservations about having the federal government more fully involve itself in the running of the nation’s schools. A careful review of the Race to the Top application, though, reveals that the Obama administration intends to encourage truly significant and meaningful reforms in the nation’s schools.

To back up his strong words on teacher effectiveness, for instance, the president is asking states to more closely tie teacher evaluations and compensation to student outcomes, and is committing millions of dollars in federal funds to help states and school districts develop pay systems that are based, at least in part, on performance. Additionally, the president is calling on states to develop alternate pathways to teacher certification, something that Maine is one of the few states without.

In fact, as a report I wrote reveals, Maine trails the nation in so many ways with regard to meaningful education reform that its chances of winning federal Race to the Top grant funds are virtually nil.

The Obama administration is requiring, for instance, that states develop ways to intervene in chronically underperforming schools. Florida, for example, has aggressive policies in place to put failing schools on notice and get them turned around, and it has seen student achievement increase as a result. Maine has nothing even remotely resembling this level of accountability for its underachieving schools.

The president is also requiring states to dramatically improve the quality of the data they collect on the performance of their schools and teachers. Unfortunately, a recent report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranked Maine near the very bottom of all states for the quality of its educational data systems. Worse still, the state reported to the National Council on Teacher Quality that it has “no plan to use [its data] system to link student achievement data with individual teachers,” something else being sought by the Obama administration.

Maine also does not have public charter schools, which is yet another promising reform that the president would like to see states embrace more fully. In fact, Maine does not even have the charterlike “innovative autonomous public schools” that the Race to the Top application allows. While the Baldacci administration evidently intends to introduce legislation to allow schools of this kind, such a plan must still win approval from the Legislature, which is where meaningful school reform proposals go to die.

In fact, if the state stands any chance of winning federal Race to the Top funding, and, more importantly, using those funds to dramatically improve its schools, the governor and the Legislature will have to defy the status quo-defending education establishment in Augusta and act decisively to adopt a whole series of bold education reforms.

In Washington, President Obama has decided that the nation’s schools are in need of a major overhaul, one that includes greater transparency, greater accountability for school administrators and teachers, and more educational choices for students and families, including charter schools.

Legislators in Augusta will need to decide, and soon, whether they agree with him.

Stephen Bowen directs the Center for Education Excellence at the Maine Heritage Policy Center. His report on Maine’s chances to win Race to the Top funding is available at www.mainepolicy.org.

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