A long trek before a Race to the Top

Team Obama is winning on education and losing on health. One difference between the health care food fight and the coherent education agenda is a mostly unified eight year policy push by the new money foundations.

The debacle we’re watching in health care is, in part, sponsored by competing foundations. Heritage is supplying talking points on the right, Kaiser Family Foundation is pushing the president’s agenda.

Centerpiece of Team Obama’s education strategy is the Race to the Top grant program. The RTT criteria—particularly requirements for a school turnaround strategy, strong charter law, comprehensive data system, and links between student achievement and teacher evaluation—are the new education reform agenda. They represent a consensus of centrist foundations that simply doesn’t exist in health care.

The ‘new’ education agenda didn’t get written last month, it’s been a decade in the making. During the last reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (called No Child Left Behind), Education Trust was the voice for reform. Kati Haycock’s gap-closing advocacy created an unusual degree of congressional consensus in favor of standards and accountability.

Since 2001, the charter school movement has become a powerful force backed by funding from Gates, Broad, Walton, Fisher, and Robertson foundations. Active charter advocates include The National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, Center for Education Reform, and funding coalitions including New Schools and Charter School Growth Fund.

The ‘human capital’ agenda has also matured in the last 8 years with the scaled success of foundation favorites Teach for America, New Leaders, and New Teacher Project.

Accelerated progress on national college ready standards began with a 2004 Gates Foundation orchestrated National High School Summit, a shotgun marriage of Achieve and NGA.

Embodying all four—college ready standards, gap closing accountability, choice, and human capital—are several new and powerful voices including Democrats for Education Reform and Education Equality Project. These new voices scaffolded the Race to the Top criteria and, with EdTrust, will be active in shaping the next ESEA reauthorization.

An Oregon editorial is a recent example of using the new reform consensus embodied in the RTT criteria to judge the state of education affairs. The website of the Lt. Gov. of Colorado is an example of using RTT to goad local progress.

Duncan’s announcement of Race the Top criteria didn’t come out of the blue—it’s the result of the smart investment of several billion dollars by a coalition of foundations supporting the work of hundreds of education policy entrepreneurs.

If health care had benefited from a decade long push by a unified group of foundations, we would already have broader coverage and lower costs.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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