Beware of Feds bearing gifts

    Virgil’s Aeneid, the classical account of the siege of Troy, gives us the millennia-old adage, “beware Greeks bearing gifts.”  The besieging Greek force built a massive horse, hid a select group of men inside, and pretended to sail away. The Trojans brought the horse into their city, and under cover of darkness the Greeks crept out and opened the city gates to the Greek army. The Trojans lost their independence by accepting what we now know as the “Trojan horse.” 

    Last week Wisconsin announced that it was seeking $254 million in federal “Race to the Top” funds for public education. There are strings attached to “Race to the Top” funds:  participating schools must create mentoring programs for teachers, and all must accept new federal standards.

    Race to the Top (RTTT) originally had some admirable goals. President Obama said last spring, “Any state that makes it unlawful to link student progress to teacher evaluations will have to change its ways to compete for a grant."  Arne Duncan, President Obama’s Secretary of Education, also demanded that participating states remove restrictions on starting charter schools.  

    Under pressure from teachers’ unions, however, the Obama Administration has backed away from those goals. Now states can evaluate teachers by using “multiple methods,” and participating states are no longer required to promote charter schools. 

    RTTT had intended to use results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to measure states’ progress, but these objectives have also been weakened. Now states are simply required to participate “in a consortium of States that is working toward jointly developing and adopting … a common set of K-12 standards.” 

    But even these requirements represent another step towards federal control of public education – an educational Trojan Horse. The RTTT guidelines require states to demonstrate “a commitment to improving the quality of its assessments by participating in a consortium of States that is working toward jointly developing and implementing common, high-quality assessments aligned with the consortium’s common set of K-12 standards.” 

    Texas’s Commissioner on Education, Robert Scott, expressed concern that the “true intention” of this effort “is to establish one set of national educational standards and national tests across the country.” RTTT is being “sold to states as voluntary,” yet states are now being told that “participation in national standards and national testing would be required as a condition of receiving federal discretionary grant funding” under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), better known to us as last year’s stimulus.   

    The biggest problem with Race to the Top is that by distributing one-time money to states and school districts across the country while imposing new standards on them, the federal government threatens to create a new layer of bureaucratic busy-work on already top-heavy state educational bureaucracies. It’s worth asking how much of the $254 million Wisconsin is asking for will actually go to the classroom, where it will do the most good. Wisconsin has already spent untold millions creating standards of its own, which will now need to be rewritten because of Wisconsin participation in RTTT. Likely, much of the money requested under RTTT will send state educrats to national consortium meetings where they will work with other state educrats to develop all new standards – which will then cost millions more to implement in Wisconsin. 

    Those costs extend far beyond the reaches of public school districts.  Concordia University, where I serve on the faculty, spends a great deal of time and money complying with standards established for K-12 education – often in departments only tangentially connected to education – because we train teachers.  If an education major is taking a course, it becomes subject to oversight by Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction (DPI). 

    RTTT will place new demands on state and local school districts at a time when state educational funding is drying up.  In my hometown Cedarburg, the property tax assessment for education went up by 9 percent while local school spending increased only 2 percent – all because local taxpayers had to cover the costs of state and federal mandates with less and less funding from the state. 

    Race to the Top might be worth it if it finally allowed schools to link pay to performance or allowed for expansion of charter schools.  But with those provisions eliminated or weakened, it just isn’t worth the costs associated with taking the one-time federal money.   

    At the end of the day, Wisconsin school districts will find themselves paying more to adhere to federal standards while taxing local property-owners more than ever to cover the costs. 

    We should be wary – very wary – of Feds bearing gifts. 

    Jim Burkee is an associate professor of history at Concordia University Wisconsin.

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