Questions of Equity and Flexibility Meet Obama's Teacher Grant Proposal

Another competitive education grant program from the Obama administration -- this one designed to overhaul the teaching profession -- has state and local policymakers concerned about equity and flexibility.
by | February 16, 2012

Another competitive education grant program from the Obama administration -- this one designed to overhaul the teaching profession -- has education experts concerned about equity and flexibility.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan formally introduced Wednesday the $5 billion Recognizing Education Success, Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching (RESPECT) Project, initially proposed in the president’s budget Monday. Based on descriptions in the budget and by Duncan, the program would likely follow a similar structure to the Race To The Top initiative: states would file applications, outlining plans to achieve goals laid out by the White House and have grants awarded based on reviews of those applications.

Specifics about application materials and review process are yet to be released, as funds would have to first be appropriated by Congress for the project to move forward. Given the political climate, that is the biggest question mark for the program’s future.

In a Wednesday release, though, the U.S. Department of Education listed some of the policies that states would have to commit to receive RESPECT grants, some of which include making teacher colleges more selective, reevaluating and overhauling tenure and evaluation systems, linking salaries to performance and improving professional development opportunities.

Michelle Exstrom, director of the educator effectiveness project at the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), told Governing that state legislators have already been working toward many of these goals, so they will likely be encouraged by support from the White House. However, she added, as with Race To The Top, a competitive program inevitably means that some states and school districts -- particularly those who might most need such funding -- will miss out on it.

“States that are making some strides or are politically poised to move forward with these issues will probably be able to take advantage,” Exstrom said. “States that were challenged to do this in the first place probably will be left behind again.”

Jim Kohlmoos, executive director for the National Association of School Boards of Education (NASBE), also voiced concerns about equity across states, while recognizing that the administration’s goals generally matched those of the states. A program that includes competitive funding and a more formulaic approach might be more effective, he said. “Whether or not you can incentivize reform with a competitive structure, we have some big concerns about that,” Kohlmoos said in an interview, noting that improving the teaching workforce is a nationwide goal. “The funds and focus need to be on those that need it the most.”

With details still murky, Kohlmoos also said that a certain degree of flexibility with the grants would be necessary for two reasons: first, each state’s situation is unique. Second, the evidence base for what policies and structures lead to effective teaching is “pretty shallow,” he said, so states need some leeway to experiment with creative options to achieve the White House’s goals. “The jury is still way out on this one,” Kohlmoos said.

Lucy Gettman, director of federal programs at the National School Boards Association (NSBA), said to Governing that local school boards share many of those state concerns. The association supports an increase in formula funding as well, Gettman said, and any competitive grants would need to come with the flexibility for school districts to make them work in their own environment. Each school district has its own relationship with its teachers union and its own history with these kinds of reforms. “There is no one-size-fits all solution to this,” she said.

The White House does have the full support of one key stakeholder: the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union. “This proposal represents a critical first-step in ensuring that all students have access to a range of high-quality resources, including qualified and licensed teachers who are empowered to innovate and inspired to take on ever-growing challenges,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel in a statement.


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