Given Concerns in States Failing to Make Progress, Did Wisconsin Win by Losing Out on Race to the Top Money?

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

Over a year ago, many Wisconsinites were disappointed when the state not only failed to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grant money in the Race to the Top (RTTT) program, but also fell in the national rankings. While Wisconsin’s inability to embrace the RTTT reforms was troubling, experiences in winning states like Florida, New York, and Hawaii suggest that the state may have struggled to implement new programs with this funding thanks to the system’s stipulated timeframe.

We previously explored how federal oversight is causing problems in state educational agencies (SEAs). Since public education is so localized at the state level, places like Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and other SEAs wield most of the power when it comes to public schools. Dr. Frederick Hess’s study showed that federal mandates and interference can limit the efficiency of these organizations and ultimately cause more harm than good.

This is a trend that we are seeing again in 2012, this time with RTTT funding and regulations. RTTT has been a series of national competitions that has awarded billions of dollars in funding grants to states that are willing to embrace educational reform in areas like school intervention and rehabilitation, the emergence of charter schools, and addressing new methods in early childhood education. Wisconsin has applied for all three rounds of RTTT grants, and been rejected by grant coordinators each time.

For many, these failures were disappointing. Reasons for this failure included local educating agencies that failed to consent to changes that would increase teacher and schoolwide accountability as well as opposition when it came to increasing student access to charter schools. However, problems that are arising in Florida this winter suggest that the Badger State may have struggled to implement these RTTT statutes – especially if other key reforms, such as Read to Lead and the school accountability program were enacted at the same time.

Florida received a grant of $700 million in 2010, behind a different governor and education commissioner that they have now. They were given four years to implement the goals they laid out in their application, which includes items like enhanced teacher testing to ensure quality schools and an expansion of quality charter options. Unfortunately, despite a strong history of reform in recent years, the state was one of three – along with Hawaii and New York – that was identified by the U.S. Department of Education as having problems meeting their timeline.

A failure to enact the reforms promised could result in a redaction of the $700 million in federal money. New education commissioner Gerard Robinson has stated that Florida has put 22 new plans in motion to address the shortcomings. Issues such as contracting and the turnover in leadership within the state have led to the delay, but officials are confident they’ll be able to fulfill the grant’s requirements. However, it has yet to be seen if this will be enough to not only keep the significant amount of federal money in the Sunshine State, but also enact meaningful reform in a state that has been a pioneer in the past decade.

In Wisconsin, this could have been catastrophic. One of the major issues in the state’s application for RTTT funds was an illusion of buy-in at the local level. While the application made the state appear to have a vast majority of local districts on board for some significant reforms, many district teachers’ unions balked at requirements like those that tied student results to educator evaluations.

While 2011’s reform to the collective bargaining process between school boards and teachers’ unions would have helped expedite some of the policy changes contained in the state’s application, it’s easy to see how Wisconsin could have ended up in a similar position as Florida had they received RTTT funding. Major change in the classroom has been a slow moving process in the Badger State since significant reform dotted the 1990s. Even the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination – the state’s main standardized test – has had a slow road to replacement despite being outdated nearly from the day of its inception.

Other states are struggling to meet the federal timeline, and its possible that Wisconsin could have befallen the same fate had they been held to the same standards. Fortunately, upcoming reforms like Read to Lead and the school and teacher accountability programs will give the Badger State the opportunity to show that timely, effective reform can again be a reality in local classrooms.

So, is Wisconsin better off without Race to the Top funding? Probably not. But it’s not a stretch to suggest that the state could have struggled to enact sweeping reforms. Past problems with federal interference and issues with the efficient application of statewide policies would have made the application of RTTT’s changes a difficult one. The state’s final grant application made it clear that not everyone was on the same page. Add this disjointed status to the slowing effect of nationally mandated reform, and it’s entirely possible that Wisconsin could have ended up a loser even if they had won the $250 million they applied for in round two of the contest.