Race to the Top loss a Call to Action

This past Tuesday we learned that Connecticut was once again shut out of the federal Race to the Top competition. While this news was disappointing, it was not wholly surprising – we were starting from way behind, and as much progress as Connecticut made with its reform legislation this year, we already knew that a number of states had pushed further with their own reforms.

Now that we are out of the running, some are tempted to offer up sour grapes, questioning the fairness of the competition, or even the premise of competitive federal funding itself. This is misguided; we lost this competition fair and square.

Indeed, although Connecticut is not a finalist for Race to the Top dollars, the reforms enacted during the past legislative session are hardly for naught. The legislature took important steps to ensure that teachers’ evaluations would be tied to their students’ performance and to give great teachers the opportunity to become principals without jumping through unnecessary hoops. Likewise, the State Board of Education took action to adopt the new Common Core standards.

These are all critical ingredients of a state education policy that may one day lead to closing our worst-in-the-nation achievement gap. It was our poor performance in Round 1 of Race to the Top that motivated stakeholders across Connecticut to come together and pass these reforms in advance of a Round 2 application, and Connecticut will benefit significantly from them. What’s much more important than dwelling on the loss is to stay focused on continuing to bring about the policy changes that actually make sense for Connecticut’s students. It’s precisely by keeping that focus that we can ensure success the next time around.

Our failure to be selected as a finalist in Round 2 of Race to the Top does, however, bring two clear lessons into sharp relief. First, we still have a long way to go towards reclaiming Connecticut’s historic mantle as a national leader in education reform.

Second, legislative leadership on its own can only take us so far.  It is time for Connecticut to drill down on what we have accomplished to date – the legislative and administrative reforms passed largely thanks to Race to the Top incentives – and on the most important opportunity ahead: securing a deeply committed education leader in the governor’s office.

So, rather than letting our Race to the Top loss devolve into an excuse for maintaining the status quo, we are fortunate to have an opportunity to use this loss as the starting gun for the next race. Connecticut will elect a new governor in November, and voters can and should call for a bold education reform agenda from our next executive leader. Tinkering around the edges will not cut it any longer; we need systemic reform now. Our next governor needs to approach the urgent challenges in our public schools with the vision to bring a comprehensive strategy to bear and the courage to put significant political capital on the line to make that strategy a reality. It us up to voters to hold the candidates accountable for what they say they will do to ensure great public schools for all our children and to demand that they settle for nothing less.

ConnCAN has put forth what we think this systemic approach looks like through the campaign platform of our idealized gubernatorial candidate, Ed U. Cation. Ed’s platform, which can be found in its entirety at www.VoteForEd.org, provides candidates and voters with information on what we think are the fundamental reforms that will finally get Connecticut back on track: courageous leadership at the top, mechanisms to understand and act upon teacher effectiveness, money that equitably follows every child to the public school of his or her choice, and a “Marshall plan” to open more great schools and turn around schools that have been failing our students for years.

As Ed’s slogan goes, “Whoever you vote for, Vote for Ed!” – any of the candidates could be the next great education reform governor. It’s up to us to make sure that our progress so far has not been in vain.  And make no mistake, this truly is about securing our very future as a state and as a nation. The longer we wait to make good on our responsibility to prepare all Connecticut’s children to enter the world as educated, productive citizens, the more imperiled our prospects become.

Alex Johnston is CEO of ConnCAN, a New Haven-based education reform advocacy group.

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