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Race to the Bottom Line

The feds want Texas to sign onto a movement toward national education standards in order to get up to $700 million in "Race to the Top" money. Texas officials say our students —and our curriculum — aren't for sale.

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For a state seeking $350 million to $700 million in federal education money, Texas sure has a funny way of going about it.

While state administrators have spent countless hours applying for the “Race to the Top” funds, their bosses, all the way up to Governor Rick Perry, have openly trashed the rules of the program. In particular, they have attacked a requirement that states sign on to a national standards movement, which Texas refuses to do.

Commissioner of Education Robert Scott called it the beginnings of a “federal takeover” and a “cash for flunkers” program, insisting any federal standards would be a step-down. Perry chimed in, echoing other campaign rhetoric by calling out oppression from “Washington” in a news release. State School Board member Don McLeroy called it “blackmail” in an interview yesterday.

It would be easy to write off such comments as campaign grandstanding. And the state’s objections are surprising, at the least, in their open hostility to the keepers of state officials still insist they want. So why keep poking Washington in the chest?

“It’s politics. They need to decide if they want to apply for the money or not,” said Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business. “I think there could be some real economies of scale in national standards over the long term … I mean, Texas history is one thing, but algebra is the same all over.”

Yet state officials offer compelling arguments against the movement toward national standards and tests. One of the strongest centers on money. While $350 to $700 million may sound like a lot of cash, it isn’t when placed in the context of a state budget that tops $40 billion annually. Even the maximum grant would come to less than 2 percent of all spending — in one-time money. Scott has argued that just the cost of changing to new standards and materials would dwarf the grant monies offered in exchange.

The Race to the Top grant wouldn’t even be the leading source of federal money, which in total only accounts for 8 percent of education spending. The state already gets more than $1.3 billion in federal Title I spending, earmarked for poor students.

“It comes to $75 a student on the low end, and $150 on the high end,” Scott said. “Our students aren’t for sale, and certainly not at that price.”

Mirror on Austin

The anti-federal rhetoric strikes a certain irony: The Washington strategy in many ways mirrors Austin’s top-down management of curriculum in school districts across a nation-sized state. The State Board of Education and the Texas Education Agency has controlled curriculum tightly for decades, handing down standards and textbook adoption to districts, with relatively little leeway.

State Board member Pat Hardy, who often has found herself on the outs with other board members, agrees that the board and state legislature sometimes meddle too much in local affairs. And the board has made a circus of certain state curriculum debates, she said. Still, Texas has an open democratic process on the front end, and a rigorous review, developed over more than 15 years, in making final approvals.

“The English standards adoption was a debacle, poorly handled,” she said, referring to an adoption completed last year that drew the ire of many educators. “But at least teachers were able to come and express their views in front of the board. In Washington, we have no choice — and no voice.”

In arguing for national standards and tests, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has chastised states for lowering standards to make their students’ performance look better. A recent federal study comparing performance on state tests to that on the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed many students scored much higher on their presumably too-easy state tests. In Texas, students scored higher in reading but comparably in other subjects.

Duncan’s office seems sensitive to the criticisms of meddling. Spokeswoman Sandra Abrevaya seemed to paint the national movement as grassroots, calling it “driven by states and on the local level.” It’s true the current effort, called the Common Core State Standards initiative — onto which 48 states have signed — is being conducted outside the federal education department, by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, with the help of millions in grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

But Washington is clearly driving the effort with $4.35 billion grant financing. Abrevaya declined comment on the quality of Texas standards, although she said many states clearly have short-changed students.

“The department is providing monetary incentives for states’ to improve and align themselves” in their standards, she said. “Arne often tells a story about a kid he worked with in Chicago that had been passing according to the standards set for him, and then found out he couldn’t meet the requirements in college. We’re lying to our kids when we tell them they are meeting standards and the standards are meaningless.”

Signing blind

Sandra Stotsky, a nationally known advocate for standards-based reforms, and a former curriculum chief in Massachusetts, believes most state standards, particularly in English, are “in very poor condition.” She believes the recently completed Texas English Language Arts standards, despite controversies, are now among the best in the country.

That should come as no surprise — Stotsky, now at the University of Arkansas, worked on the standards as a consultant. But she also has been hired as an advisor for the Common Core project. If that project or others produces high-quality standards that can be successfully implemented on a massive scale — hardly a sure thing — it could become a great benefit to students in many states, she said.

But Stotsky sees a serious problem in connecting the standards movement to Race to the Top grant money. While Texas seems unconcerned about missing out on the big federal windfall — perhaps because of its sheer size, perhaps its political peculiarities — other states seem to have fallen over themselves to sign up, she said.

Never mind that the national standards don’t even yet exist.

“We could end up with a bomb. How can you tie Race to the Top funds to an unknown product?” she asked. “But it’s not surprising (states signed on) when you have such cash-starved states. It comes at a time when they are all hurting, and the only manufacturer of money is the federal government.” 

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