Wisconsin was Bound to Fail in Race to the Top Quest

I’m just going to come out and say it.

Attn. Governor Jim Doyle and DPI Superintendent Tony Evers: We Told You So.

In fact, we told you so, again, and again and again…

Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Tennessee had the highest scores among applicants for nearly $2 Billion in one-time Federal “Race to the Top” education grants.

Applicants were judged on 500-point scale that looked at the states’ commitment to improving teacher effectiveness, data systems, academic standards and low-performing schools.

Why didn’t Wisconsin make the cut?

One thing is certain.  Contrary to the overheated rhetoric of Governor Doyle and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Doyle’s failure to win legislative approval to transfer governance of Milwaukee’s failing public schools from the MPS Board to the Mayor played little, if any role.

“Nowhere in the application did it expressly say that a state would be given extra points for having mayoral control [of an urban school district],” said Andy Smarick, a nationally recognized leader on education reform who has been following the Race to the Top grant making process while serving as a Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. “To only point to the mayoral control piece, as the reason they didn’t make the cut, that is not justified.”

Not that it stopped Doyle from having a public temper tantrum last week, but the Governor should have seen this denial coming.

Last November, we reported on legislative efforts to pass a watered-down education reform package intended to make Wisconsin’s RTTT application stronger. When WEAC, the state teachers’ union, used their influence to water down any serious effort to tie teacher compensation to student performance, we wrote:

“Wisconsin Republicans say they like what the President has to say about the need for education reform, even more so than state Democrats do. Only time will tell if it stays that way. WEAC’s clout helped block sweeping merit pay reforms from passing in the legislature this week, while more modest changes were accepted. Will that jeopardize Wisconsin’s application for ‘Race to the Top’ Funds?”

See the entire video report:

Then in January, we saw further warning signs that Wisconsin did not fare well when compared to other states’ educational reform efforts.

Wisconsin’s charter school law, passed more than 16 years ago, has failed to keep pace with others’ reform efforts and could hurt the state’s chances in a national battle for education funding, according to a new national study.

The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says Wisconsin’s charter school law now ranks 33rd in the nation in terms of ‘quality and accountability,’ ‘funding equity,’ ‘facilities support,’ autonomy, and ‘growth and choice.’

Wisconsin’s application for Race to the Top funding, could be scored lower due to the relatively weak ranking on its charter school law.

The Alliance warned, “As states prepare to submit applications for the federal Race to the Top (RTTT) grant program, the rankings provide clear indications of where some states excel and others come up short in charter-related policies,”

Commenting on another black mark on Wisconsin’s application during his interview this week with the MacIver Institute, Smarick also said the state’s caps on enrollment in online public charter schools, also known as virtual schools, hurt Wisconsin’s grade. “The rules confirm that restrictions on charters will result in a deduction of points.”

Oh well, virtual school open enrollment transfers are capped, by statute, at 5,250, but who could have predicted that such a restriction would hurt Wisconsin’s application?

Well, we did…back in October, when the RTTT rules were first proposed.

The education press in Wisconsin has already pointed out that Wisconsin’s prohibition on the use of student achievement in teacher evaluations jeopardizes our state’s ability to procure Race to the Top funds. But unreported, so far, is the fact that the enrollment cap on virtual schools also could serve as a deal breaker. In Madison, legislation has been proposed to eliminate the restriction on teacher evaluations, but those efforts may be moot if a similar effort to remove the cap on virtual school enrollment is not successful.

On page 32 section D(2) of the proposed rules one prominent selection criteria for up to $100 million in Race to the Top funding is“The extent to which the State has a charter school law that does not prohibit or effectively inhibit increasing the number of charter schools in the State (as measured by the percentage of total schools in the State that are allowed to be charter schools) or otherwise restrict student enrollment in charter schools.”? ?The cap on online public charter school enrollment is clearly a restriction on student enrollment in charter schools, and also serves as a de-facto cap on the number of public virtual charter schools that can operate here.

If the cap remains in place, the Race to the Top funding may go elsewhere.

And, it did.

How Wisconsin’s failure in this effort could surprise anyone is, frankly, mind boggling.

Now, it will be more than a month before we know just how poorly Wisconsin’s application graded out, and why. The scorecards of all 41 applicants won’t be made public until the after the 16 semifinalists are whittled down even further and the final winners announced in April. However, don’t expect to see the phrase “failure to pass legislation putting MPS under mayoral control” mentioned prominently, if at all, on Wisconsin’s scorecard.

Moreover, Doyle and the legislative leaders should not be surprised, given the Wisconsin Legislature’s reluctance to embrace the real reforms favored by the USDOE, that future ‘consolation prizes’ from this program may also be hard to come by.

But rest assured if Wisconsin gets shut out again, we’ll hear more surprise and outrage from the East Wing.

Because they desperately needed that money…

By Brian Fraley
A MacIver Perspective

Coming soon:  Part II. Shell Game Canceled: Why the Race to the Top funds would not have increased education funding in Wisconsin anyway.