Federal Policy to Reauthorize Federal Education Law Follows Race to the Top Philosophy

Controversial U.S. Department of Education guidelines for the federal stimulus reflect the Obama Administration's strategy for the long overdue ESEA reauthorization.  In his proposed budget and State of the Union speech and in a March 2010, proposed "Blueprint for Reform in the Reauthorization of ESEA," President Obama has laid out the direction in which his Administration will lead federal education policy—including the reauthorization of the federal education law, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), whose most recent, 2002, version is called the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).

These priorities became clear last summer when the Department of Education enacted regulations and guidelines to guide distribution of Race to the Top and several additional innovation funds, all part of the federal economic stimulus package, to states and specific school districts through competitive grants.

The regulations for the Race to the Top competition specified several radical and untested school reform plans: replacing the staff; moving the children to other schools, or bringing in education management organizations; vastly increasing the number of charter schools; and basing teacher pay on students' standardized test scores. Some states, vying to win the Race to the Top competition, have begun implementing programs covered by these turnaround strategies.

Here are resources that clarify some primary concerns with the strategies being implemented in Race to the Top and policies being proposed for the ESEA reauthorization.  While the public has little power to control the implementation of Race to the Top policies, because Congress has already approved the federal stimulus program of which Race to the Top is a part, Congress will have oversight over the ESEA reauthorization.  We are called as faithful citizens to inform ourselves about these proposals.

  • June 1, 2010: A National Council of Churches delegation met with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlyn Ali on June 1, 2010.  The group addressed concerns about the policies of the  U.S. Department of Education, under the leadership of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who is pushing hard for reforms in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (whose most recent 2002 reauthorizaiton is called No Child Left Behind) that would heavily penalize the five percent of schools struggling hardest to raise test scores.  The Obama Administration's proposed Blueprint for the reauthorization also de-emphasizes the Title I formula program, designed to to compensate (to the degree a relatively federal program can) for massive funding inequity across the states, for competitive grants rewarding states that comply with Administration priorities: removing statutory caps on the authorization of new charter schools; tying teacher pay to students' test scores, a merit pay scheme; and the firing of entire staffs in so-called "failing" schools.  Some states, vying to win the Race to the Top competition, have already begun implementing programs covered by these turnaround strategies.  Duncan requested the meeting following receipt of a pastoral letter adopted unanimously by the NCC’s Governing Board at its May 2010 meeting.  The group presented its concerns to the Secretary of Education: that our education system should view children as valued individuals, not products to be tested; and that market-based reforms, while they may increase educational opportunity for a few children, are likely to introduce more inequity into the system itself.  The group cautioned against scapegoating principals and teachers and urged the Secretary instead to address deep structural injustices.
  • May 18, 2010: The 69 member Governing Board of the National Council of Churches unanimously adopted a pastoral letter, "An Alternative Vision for Public Education," that speaks to today’s conversation about public schools, a conversation which has lately veered into attacking public education and scapegoating public school educators.  The statement prayerfully asks Congress to address the substantive matters that need to be overhauled when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is reauthorized.  It explores serious issues in the Race to the Top competition including incentives to charterize and privatize public schools, incentives to tie teacher evaluations to students' test scores, and radical and untested turnaround plans like firing the principal and at least half of the staff or closing the school and moving children elsewhere. 
  • During March 2010, Justice & Witness Ministries and other faith leaders filed formal comments to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor when the public was invited to identifiy priorities for the ESEA reauthorization.
  • March, 2010, Witness for Justice column examines school turnaround policies in Race to the Top and proposals for ESEA reauthorization: Research Rejects School Reforms Being Pushed by Obama Administration.
  • On February 23, 2010, the school board in Central Falls, Rhode Island, dismissed the entire faculty of the community's high school, deemed "failing" under NCLB's Adequate Yearly Progress rating.  The Commissioner of Education announced that this move was made for the purpose of turning around the school in accord with the guidelines for the federal Race to the Top.
  • October 26 2009: "They Stole our Public Schools and They Stole our Democracy..." a new Witness for Justice column, explores the meaning of the "public" in public education.  An important question is whether requiring states to remove statutory caps on the authorization of new charter schools, as federal Race to the Top guidelines will demand, will serve democracy.
  • The United Church of Christ and many of our partners responded in August 2009, when the U.S. Department of Education invited comments.  Here are August 200,  Comments Submitted to Education Department Demonstrate Public School Priorities of UCC JWM and Our Partners.
  • Charter Schools are a centerpiece of the Duncan Department of Education's school reform strategy.  As a Public/Private Mix, Do Charter Schools Serve the Common Good?
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