10 things you should know about Race to the Top

The biggest story in education last week was the release of the final application for the $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” funding that the federal government has made available for states. But what is the fund?  What are its objectives?  How do states actually receive the money?  Here are 10 things you should know about the fund.

1). It is a lot of money, but it is a small percentage of the annual education budget.

Qualifying states could receive as much as $700 million, which sounds like a lot.  But the $4.35 billion fund actually represents a small fraction of the annual U.S. spending in K-12 education, which was estimated to be about $667 billion in the 2008-2009 school year.  Cash-strapped states in this recession year will of course be more than happy to receive this funding. 

2). The fund is designed to encourage education reform and reward the best proposals by the states.

States must submit applications that explain in detail how they plan to reform their education system and to implement a comprehensive data collection and evaluation system to measure whether they have met these goals. 

3). The state applications are evaluated based on a 500-point scale.

A detailed summary and explanation of the scoring system and the scale can be found here.

4). There are two phases in the application process.

The funding application process is divided into two phases.  States that are ready now can apply in Phase I, which has a deadline on January 19, 2010.  Those that need more time can apply during Phase II, which has a deadline of June 1, 2010.  States that received grants in Phase I cannot reapply during Phase II, but states that did not receive grants are invited to reapply in Phase II.

5). The fund encourages linking teacher evaluation to student performance.

States are not eligible to receive the funds unless they do away with statutory or regulatory barriers to link student test scores and performance to teacher evaluation. Many states currently have this barrier, and several state legislatures have already moved to pass legislation that abolish these prohibitions in order to be eligible for the funding.

6). The fund encourages charter schools.

Both President Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan have been outspoken supporters of charter schools.  Race to the Top encourages states to create more charter schools.  Ten state legislatures have already responded by raising or repealing caps on the number of charter schools within the state.

7). “Common standards” and “data” are key words in the application process. 

This mean (mostly) student test scores.  The states are encouraged to develop and adopt “standardized assessment” of student performance, implementing data systems to track and evaluate the performance over time, and score teachers and principals based on performance data.  

Altogether, tho parts of the application that deal with standard and data-collection are worth 175 points.  Moreover, “demonstrating progress” (30 points), demonstrating the turnaround of low-performance schools (40 points), and the effective implementation of other measures all rely on common standards and the development of a comprehensive data collection and evaluation system.

8). The biggest opposition has (and will continue to) come from teacher’s unions.

Unsurprisingly, the emphasis on using student standardized test scores to evaluate teachers, and the move towards “merit pay” in some states, have already met with fierce criticism from teacher’s unions and educational associations.

9). There is not enough focus on implementation.

Some are troubled by how little emphasis has been put on for making sure that states actually implement the wonderful plans that they create once they receive the funding.  One commentator put it very well:

I expect the plans to be truly impressive with the level of investment that Gates is making in helping states develop the plans. But education is full of well written plans that then become shelf art. I have written some of that wonderful shelf art myself. But, putting in place mechanisms to ensure that a state and its school districts live up to the plan that they have written does not seem to get much attention in this process.

10). Public reaction to the application has been largely positive but cautious.

Many questions remain, including how strictly the Department of Education will be enforcing the stated criteria and how high it would set the bar, and how much money would be left if the four biggest states (New York, California, Texas, Florida) decide to apply in Phase I.  We will be able to learn much more after April 2010, when the winners for Phase I are announced.

Religious schools and church-state relations

church and stateAs is well known, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides, among other things, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. This is usually understood to mean, in Jefferson’s words, that there should be a “wall of separation” between the church and the state. Of course, Jefferson meant that the wall would only apply to the national government and not state government, who did have established religions (for example Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Maryland). However, the practice of having state established religions discontinued, and definitely died out with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Today, however, it can’t be said that there is a “wall of separation” between religion and government.  The Supreme Court has allowed a few cracks in that wall. Here are just three examples. In Everson v. Board of Education, the Court held that reimbursements for transportation even to students of private religious schools do not violate the Establishment Clause. And in Simmons v. Zelman-Harris the Court ruled that disbursement of federal funds to local educational agencies which lent educational materials and equipment to public and private schools to implement secular, neutral and non-ideological programs, even though some of them are given to Catholic schools is constitutional as well.  Finally, in Agostini v. Felton, the Court held that public school teachers can instruct at religious schools so long as material is secular in nature.

In all these cases the Court has insisted that there be no excessive entanglement government and religion, and, as long as this condition was kept (along with other requirements), then the allocation of funds and resources to religious schools is constitutional. The flip side of this separation, of course,  is that government doesn’t have a say over the management of these schools.

Of course, this doesn’t have to be the case. One can ask the question why isn’t it the case that as long as federal (or state) funds are given to religious schools, government shouldn’t have more of a say in how these schools are run. If, as Greta suggested, education should be considered a basic right, perhaps we should be more inclined to increase state regulation on private religious schools. The problem here is that this type of involvement can create exactly the difficulties the Framers sought to avoid.

Consider this recent British Case. A 12 year old boy, son to a Jewish father and a Jewish convert mother, applied to the Jewish Free School. The school, like other parochial institutions, is partially funded by the British government. And yet, British law allows the school to decide on admissions based on criteria decided by a designated religious authority. Those criteria have denied the boy admission, since, per the school, the mother did not undergo an orthodox Jewish conversion, but a progressive one. Thus, per orthodox rules, the boy is not considered a Jew and thus was not admitted.

The parents sued, and though they lost, the appeals court reversed and held that the test of whether someone is Jewish — whether one’s mother is Jewish — was discriminatory, no matter what the rationale was. Further, the court held that the school did not use a religious distinction because its decision rested on the status of the child’s mother and hence it was an ethnic test, which is illegal. The court said that “The requirement that if a pupil is to qualify for admission his mother must be Jewish, whether by descent or conversion, is a test of ethnicity which contravenes the Race Relations Act”. It concluded by saying that the admissions criteria must depend not on family ties on “faith. However defined”.

The ruling, which has been appealed to the Supreme Court, has rattled the Jewish community in Britain. The case is problematic on many grounds. We can talk about the usual problem of judicial overreach, but more importantly, there is the problem of a secular authority attempting to determine something which is clearly the purview of religious doctrine. Of course, the rationale for intervening is the fact of public financing. If public monies are used, why shouldn’t the larger community have a say on who gets admitted?

The problem, I think, lies with this dichotomy, this either-or thinking that once there is some state involvement then everything is up for grabs and is fair game. To be sure, I don’t know what the appropriate balance is, though my sense is that, at least politically, it would have been better for the court not to intervene and let this vexing issue be resolved inside the Jewish community. Legally, it’s hard for me to see why this is an “ethnic” issue and not also, or mainly, a “religious” one.

Be that as it may, my point is that the U.S. model is not the only one available to us. At present, there is very little regulation over the management and content being taught at religious schools. But with the increased allocation of funds, more regulation might be expected. And that might lead us to grapple with far more complicated questions than books and busing. Increased regulation necessarily means, then, making decisions on religious dogma in the name of constitutional principles. Currently, this opens up more problems than it purports to solve.

School finance litigation: a neverending play

I was going to post a reply to Greta’s post, but then realized I’ll just write another post elaborating a little more on the important issue of school finance litigation.

Greta is correct in pointing out the three waves of finance litigation. The literature is unanimous on the development of these cases and on the textual anchor of each wave. Some even suggest that a fourth wave is upon us, that of socio-economic integration or relying more on state desegregation clauses. At any rate, the three waves is a correct description of where we are right now.

Where the situation gets a little trickier, however, is whether adequacy suits are successful in achieving their purpose. Here we need to take account of a host of factors, of which the courts are just one, and perhaps not even the most important one.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, adequacy lawsuits tend to succeed in a hospitable political environment. Greta points to the New York case, which is actually a great example. In New York, the litigation was driven by the Campaign For Fiscal Equity, a dedicated NGO that really mobilized (through partnering up with other organizations) the communities affected by funding disparities. Despite that great mobilization, that litigation took 13 years to complete, and although the state court determined that each year $1.93 billion must be allocated to education, it gave the legislature the discretion to decide how that money would be spent.

But even in New York, and in the rest of the country, adequacy lawsuits have proved elusive. Pioneering work on these issues was done by Michael Rebell, a professor in Columbia’s Teachers College. In an article published in 1996, in the Yale Law & Policy Review, he concludes that court intervention has been, overall, disappointing. Very few states actually changed their funding scheme, and even those that did, the long term effects are nebulous. In addition, in some states, such as California, there have been adverse results with regards to equality after the court mandated changed, and in other states, such as West Virginia, the legislature completely ignored the court’s decision. In New Jersey, court involvement triggered a longstanding conflict between the court and the legislature, where the court continually struck down legislative funding schemes, deeming them inadequate. It should be noted that Rebell does propose a solution to these problems, in the form of public engagement campaigns, also called dialogic remedies. Public engagement is promising, and perhaps I’ll blog about it some other time.

Another trend that possibly undermines Greta’s analysis is the recent reluctance of courts to continue hearing adequacy lawsuits. Adequacy suits are long, expensive, require constant monitoring by courts, and heavily criticized by other political branches and, mostly, though not uniformly, by conservatives. Erik Hanushek, perhaps the most important conservative voice in this debate, has been influential. In his many books and articles, Hanushek claims that the achievment gap is not attributable to funding, but to the lack of incentives that produce good outcomes. He is a fierce critic of judicial involvement, for a variety of reasons that I won’t go into here. Although I disagree with his conclusions, his approach has been influential in the debate.

The recent decline in the willingness of courts to hear adequacy suits stems from these concerns. Courts have noticed that adequacy litigation is complex and perhaps overextends their capabilities. They have also noted the dismal record of courts that did take on the legislature. As a result, more and more courts, between 2005-2008, have declined to take on adequacy cases, citing non-justiciability, traditional concerns for the separation of powers, and deference to legislative budgetary allocations. An empirical study conducted by Robynn Sturm and Julia Simon-Kerr confirms this.

So, what is the lesson? It seems that on the whole we cannot be too optimistic about adequacy litigation. We need to rethink the kinds of remedies that might work in the education context. Rebell’s public engagement is one of those remedies. Other scholars suggest a host of non-monetary remedies, such as expanded school choice, mandatory pre-school, increased focus on the process by which education decisions are made. Finally, a hospitable political climate is key. The adequacy suits that have been successful enjoyed legislative support, an engaged and committed civil society, and a vast support structure that accompanied such reforms. Courts, alone, cannot be the answer. And allocating more money, alone, is not the answer as well.

Related post: Suing the state for inadequate schools: a drama in 3 acts

Suing the state for inadequate schools: a drama in 3 acts

My co-blogger Adam will surely disagree with me, but I was intrigued and excited by last week’s decision by the Colorado Supreme Court in Lobato vs. Colorado. The decision held that the lawsuit, which challenges the adequacy of funding for the public schools in the state, could go forward.  The full opinion of the court is here.

Lobato began in 2005, when a group of parents from 8 school districts across Colorado brought suit against the state.  The Colorado state constitution requires that the state provides a “thorough and uniform” system of free public schools in the state.  The plaintiffs in the lawsuit allege that the “thorough and uniform” standard should be defined by Colorado’s own educational content standard, and that some Colorado public schools are not meeting that standard.

The district court in Denver initially dismissed the suit, and its ruling was upheld by the Colorado Court of Appeals.  But the Supreme Court in the state overturned the ruling last week and sent the case back to trial court.

Lobato is not unique.  It is part of a national trend.  Similar lawsuits have been filed in 26 states around the country, with favorable results to the plaintiffs in more than 20 states.  Those lawsuits may well bring about a sea change in school-financing in the country, but this change did not come easily.

School funding litigation occurred in three stages.  Earlier school funding litigation tended to focus on the Equal Protection guarantee in the U.S. Constitution.  These lawsuits got the plaintiffs nowhere.  In the 1973 landmark case of San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, the Supreme Court held that a school-financing system based on local property taxes did not violate the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment, even though the financing system resulted in vast differences in the amount of money spent per student in different school districts.

San Antonio effectively cut off school funding litigation in the federal courts based on the Equal Protection Clause.  Trying to circumvent it, plaintiffs turned to state courts. All state constitutions have education clauses that guarantee public schools for children within the state.  Over the next 2 decades or so, a wave of lawsuits, based on “equity” claims that were strikingly similar to the Equal Protection claims in San Antonio, were filed in state courts across the country.  This was “Act Two” of the school funding litigation.  Unfortunately for the plaintiffs, state courts by and large rejected the “equity” claims just as the Supreme Court rejected the Equal Protection claims of the plaintiffs in San Antonio.

The final act began in the late 1980s, when the legal concept of “adequacy” gained popularity and met with greater success.  Some commentators observed that it is no accident that the doctrine took hold in an era where the standards and accountability movement in education also rose in popularity.  If the state government was going to set educational standards and hold schools accountable if they do not meet those standards, then the government had better give schools enough funding to meet the standards.  This is precisely the argument of the Colorado plaintiffs.

Critics of the adequacy lawsuits say that the judiciary is not a competent institution to decide whether a financing system is “adequate.”  Such a complex subject is the purview of the legislature.  The troubled history of the adequacy suits in New York is instructive as to the perils of this type of lawsuits.  After a string of legal victories by the plaintiffs, the  high court in New York ordered the state to undertake studies and fund each school adequately.  When the state did not act by the deadline, the court took it upon itself to appoint a panel of specialists and to hold hearings on the matter.  The panel made recommendations that involved several billions of dollars of funding, which resulted in several more years of legal resistance and appeals from the state and backtracking by the courts.  (You can read a brief recount of this painful history here.) The story has a semi-happy ending: a scaled-down version of the recommendations was eventually proposed by the governor and adopted by the legislature.

In spite of the messy history,  however, I am still optimistic about the adequacy lawsuits.  Although the courts may not be great with designing complex financing systems and enforcing its funding recommendations, it does very well in formulating legal standards and applying those standards to a set of facts, even a set of very complex, data-laden facts.

And this is precisely what we need from the courts here.  We need them to articulate what “adequate” public school means when it is written into the state constitution.  We then need them to decide whether particular school districts meet those definitions, and, if a financing system results in consistently inadequately funded schools, whether that system passes (state) constitutional muster.

No one said that the process won’t be painfully slow and ineffectual, just like the way our government sometimes works.  It will certainly have federalism land mines along the way, such as when the legislature simply ignores the court’s determination of unconstitutionality.

But the first step to recovery is admitting that you have a problem, and courts are great with that.

Related post: School finance litigation: a neverending play

Politics, political science, and the production of knowledge

My last post discussed the costs associated with judicial supervision of the academic system, where I argued that such intervention undermines the purpose of a university. Today, however, I learned of a different kind of intervention. In a recent proposal, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK), suggested that the National Science Foundation, the federal agency in charge of funding scientific projects, stop “wasting any federal research funding on political science projects“.

CoburnThis is no small potatoes. The NSF, with a budge of over $6 billion, funds about 20 percent of all federally supported research at American colleges and universities. Though political science research would presumably continue, it would no doubt take a hit if Coburn’s proposal is approved. A $9 million hit, to be exact.

Presumably, the proposal is motivated by the idea that political science departments don’t conduct valuable research (it’s hard to discern what Coburn’s idea of value is, however), and that the money could be spent more efficiently elsewhere. Indeed, Coburn said that network television and cable news stations provide a myriad of answers to the questions political scientists are engaged with.

There are at least two problems with Coburn’s proposal. First, is the idea that a politician, who is probably not very well versed in the academic literature, seems to think, based on scant evidence, if any, that an entire scientific field is worthless. I’m saying this is a problem because the NSF, which is a federal agency comprised of experts and which also employs scientists to determine how the funds will be disbursed, does not seem to think the field is worthless. The NSF actually does maintain regular contact with the academic and research community to assess the situation.  It is unclear, then, what the criteria for Coburn’s proposal are, and he would do well to articulate them.

More importantly, and on a more philosophical level, Coburn’s argument demonstrates a misunderstanding regarding the production of knowledge. This misunderstanding is so severe and so widely shared, I think, that a fuller elaboration is necessary.

Knowledge is produced today mainly in two settings, market and non-market. In the market setting, knowledge is produced for commercial purposes and basically follows the supply and demand curves. If the public demands a product or service, or if developers sense a need for such product or service, then efforts to produce that product will take place and knowledge will be accrued in the service of that and future products. The knowledge produced in the market setting, therefore, is dependent on market needs. If the market doesn’t need a product right now, then it will most likely not be developed, and the knowledge won’t be gained.

Knowledge can also be produced in non-market settings, such as universities, government laboratories, think tanks, and the like. Because the knowledge is developed outside the market, it doesn’t have to meet its demands.

Already we can see the difference. In the market setting, knowledge is produced instrumentally, to bring about a product. On this view, knowledge is the means to produce an end. But knowledge can also be considered as a product by itself, which is what the non-market (academic) setting is mostly concerned with. If we think of knowledge as having these two meanings, then we can point to a market failure in the production of knowledge. The knowledge that we get from the political pundits Coburn referred to is knowledge produced to achieve something else, for example high ratings. The market is therefore ill-equipped to produce the knowledge as product that universities, and political science departments, produce.

Coburn is being terribly short sighted here. It could indeed be that some political science scholarship does not reap immediate rewards. However, the nature of the production of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, and its interaction with market based knowledge production, is that it produces more knowledge. How we come to know something invariably depends on all the trials and errors and progress that preceded it. Cutting funding is to be oblivious to that . It harms the production of knowledge.