Louisiana’s “inexplicable” failure to make top 12 raises questions about Obama administration’s commitment to reform

Louisiana’s education leaders are wondering what more they can do to outperform other states in terms of reform. Louisiana failed to receive any funds in the federal “Race to the Top” program, and the lack of correlation between successful reform and monetary awards raises questions about the judging process.

Less than one month ago the U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, described Louisiana as “leading the way” with data systems that monitor teacher preparation programs and student performance. And on Tuesday the Fordham Institute, a Washington-based education policy think-tank, named New Orleans the most education reform friendly city in the nation.

According to Frederick Hess, Director of Education Policy Studies with the American Enterprise Institute, “[the outcome] was a travesty. Colorado and Louisiana are regarded as setting the standard for statutory reform on teacher quality… Louisiana’s Recovery School District is a model that has been imitated by round one ‘Race to the Top’ winner Tennessee.”

More than two thirds of New Orleans elementary and secondary students are in charter schools, and Hess believes “Louisiana is home to the nation’s most vibrant charter school community… For Louisiana and Colorado to have finished outside of the dozen ‘Race to the Top’ winners is inexplicable.”

The 15th place finish took policy makers in Louisiana by surprise. Penny Dastugue, a member of the Louisiana’s Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, was “absolutely shocked… We were confident that we would prevail in round two, and we had strengthened our application after the first round… There’s no rational explanation… We’re all shaking our heads.”

Dastugue had worked to pass legislation specifically for the competition. “The ‘Race to the Top’ proposal was pretty explicit in the expectations, and Louisiana had a lot of the components. We had those in place.”

When asked how she could have changed the proposal, Dastugue was at a loss. All she can say is that “with or without the dollars, we believe in [our reform]. We’re going to do it… Time will show that we are intent, and we’re capable of implementing these reforms with or without their money… Although, this money ($175 million) really would have helped; it’s devastating.”

Hess says the outcome “points to problems with the ‘Race to the Top’ criteria, which emphasize compliance with the department’s preferred practices rather than with a demonstrated track record of reform, an undue emphasis on grant writing rather than substance, and a bizarre weight placed on the dog and pony show visits to D.C. rather than what states have done on the ground.”

His “dog and pony show” comment refers to the oral presentations each state spokesperson gave to bolster his case. These had a marked effect on the outcome – enough to knock Louisiana out of the monetary awards, falling behind Ohio, New Jersey, and Arizona.

As Secretary of Education, Duncan did have the authority to change the rankings. However, he chose not to, and Hess describes the secretary’s position as a “lose-lose proposition.” There may have been a “bunch of undeserving winners,” but the alternative would have created “a firestorm among the states that were passed over.”

Hess is more concerned that the outcome will “undermine strong reformers in leading states like Louisiana and Colorado… It’s going to excuse business as usual in states like Hawaii and Ohio. And it’s going to undermine the Department of Education’s credibility when it advocates tough-minded reforms for teacher quality or accountability.”

Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Fordham Institute, believes that by not overriding the rankings, Duncan took “the path of least resistance,” and opted for “union peace” over the interests of children.

“[The peer reviewers] came out with a ranking that didn’t make a lot of sense. Everybody, whatever side of the issue, thinks that Louisiana is a trend setter in education, has been pushing the envelope – what’s happened in New Orleans is incredible – and deserves to get this funding. The peer review process is really just advisory. At the end of the day he can give the money to whomever he wants. He has legal standing to do so.”

He notes “fierce union opposition” to the Colorado and Louisiana plans. In fact, the Recovery School District in New Orleans is the nation’s only major city district with no teachers’ union contract or collective bargaining agreement. According to a Fordham Institute profile, “the teachers’ union wields almost no power to block or weaken reforms, and is generally focused on narrow issues such as dismissal hearings.”

“More than anything, it just shows that with these competitive grant programs the outcome can be arbitrary and capricious… The problem is there is no way to perfect the process; it’s inherently subjective… so you allow a secretary to have that discretion, to use his own judgment.”

Regardless of the controversy, President Barack Obama plans to repeat the program next year, and he has already requested $1.35 billion in funding.

Click below to hear the thoughts of Frederick Hess (six minutes).


Fergus Hodgson is the Capitol Bureau Reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be contacted at fhodgson@pelicanpolicy.org, and one can follow him on Twitter. This article first appeared here on the Institute’s home page.