Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s plan to reform the public school system in America is coming under fire from community groups. With many inner city school systems floundering, “Race to the Top” is being crucified as an unfair indictment of schools.

“There’s a tremendous problem with Race to the Top and it’s fundamental,” said Nathan A. Saunders, general vice president of the Washington Teacher’s Union. “The structure is that we are going to reward achievement. The problem is not all children achieve at the same level or at the same time.

“The focus of tax dollars ought to be to provide them according to the need as opposed to who’s growing at the fastest rate.”

In a protest outside of the Department of Education headquarters in Southwest Washington on April 10, the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) offered scathing criticism of the plan.

“The greatest single democratic achievement of the 20th century was the universal program created in this nation to try to put us all on equal footing; to make us a single society multi-cultural, multi-lingual; coming from all parts of the world with a single goal, hope and to make us unified through a single process of achieving public education,” said Shanta Driver, national chairperson of BAMN. “This great gain is what’s under attack.”

People traveled from California, New York, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Connecticut. They said Duncan’s program is having a trickle-down effect and is now affecting the way states approach public education.

Ceresta Smith, a teacher from Florida, said she is upset at how federal policies have begun to affect how her state legislators’ plan to compensate teachers.

“Our House passed a bill which will end teacher tenure and end credential pay for educators along with tying over 50 percent of teacher’s salaries to classroom assessments,” she said. “We’ve been protesting for the last month – marching in the streets up to Tallahassee trying to get the Senate and the House to reject these bills.”

However, Duncan believes in the merits of the program. He says that it’s time that America reforms its public education system so that it can become more competitive globally.

“In a global economy where jobs and investment are not restricted by borders, America is in a race for our long-term economic security,” Duncan said in a recent blog. “The single most-important investment we can make as a nation is to ensure that every child gets the best education possible. We have no time to waste.”

So Duncan devised a program which would reward states who brought about educational reform in a way that tied achievement to compensation.

In phase one of the competition, out of 16 finalists, only two were rewarded. Delaware received $100 million and Tennessee received $500 million. Washington, D.C., finished in last place among the finalists.

Duncan said though all the proposals were “strong,” Delaware and Tennessee stood out for several reasons.

“Both states have statewide buy-in for comprehensive plans to reform their schools,” he said. “They have written new laws to support their policies and they have demonstrated the courage, capacity, and commitment to turn their ideas into practices that can improve outcomes for students.”

Officials from the two winning states say they believe in the program especially since it has given them funding that they wouldn’t have otherwise.

“Our school district will benefit greatly,” said Elise Shelton, chief communications officer for the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System in Tennessee. “We’re starting a magnet , working with more magnet schools and we’re putting together a program where science and math easily integrate, and in tying those together, we’re hoping to see improved test scores.”

Shelton admits that while she thought Tennessee had a good plan, she was a bit surprised that only two states were selected.

“We felt that because the governor was able to get the teacher’s union on board and every single school district in the state and all the school boards to sign off on it, it was quite an accomplishment,” she said. “It showed Tennessee was serious about making change for the better.”

Opponents say despite the good the funding does for Tennessee, the program is still unfair and inadequate to meet the needs.

“When you have $4.3 billion and you have a school over in Southeast (D.C.) with walls falling down, why do you have to fill out an application to get some money?” Cherita Whiting, chair of the Ward Four Educational Council, asked. “The money is there; just give it to the schools that need the money.”


George Barnette

Special to the AFRO