In our view: ‘Race to the Trough’?

Most local school districts reluctantly agree to go along to get along for federal revenue

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Funding for public education (Remember? The paramount duty of the Legislature according to the state constitution?) has become such a desperate dilemma for school boards that they’ve been forced into a rather unbecoming dance. Call it the Go-Along-to-Get-Along Waltz.

School boards in nine of Clark County’s 10 school districts have signed on as supporters of the state’s application for the federal “Race to the Top” funding program, but they’ve done so reluctantly. A Thursday story in The Columbian contained numerous comments from local administrators that were highly critical of the federal requirements for the funding, as well as the pressure applied by Gov. Chris Gregoire to get school districts statewide to endorse the application.

As of Wednesday, only 111 of the state’s 295 school districts had supported the application. In Clark County, all but the La Center district are signatories. The nine districts were led — forced, some would argue — to support the plan for two reasons. First, they don’t want to be seen as contrarians in the unlikely event that our state receives part of the $4.3 billion that will be awarded to states before Sept. 30. We say unlikely because Washington state withdrew from the first round of “Race to the Top” (RTTT) funding, and this second application looks fairly weak when placed alongside other states’ requests. That’s especially true with so few districts — so far — supporting the application.

Second, local school districts are so desperate for funding that board members are willing to chase virtually any revenue source, no matter how uncomfortable that chase might become. RTTT could yield anywhere from $924,000 for the Vancouver district to $627,000 for the Evergreen district and lesser amounts to smaller districts. Without supporting the application, that funding could be reduced. Locally, only La Center has declined the request to sign on. La Center Superintendent Mark Mansell said, “Any time you chase money and not an idea, it’s not meaningful change. It has no real impact. That’s the thing that makes me really, really upset about this. We’re chasing after the money.”

And few, if any, of his colleagues in Clark County would disagree. Evergreen Superintendent John Deeder described the process as “really, really repugnant.” Still, the lure of the money is stronger than any federal restrictions that would accompany the grant.

In the end, going along to get along might inflict no lasting damage because our state is so far behind in the race. Gregoire and the Legislature tried to bolster the application earlier this year by strengthening teacher evaluations, giving principals and superintendents more power to fire bad teachers, increasing oversight of school accountability plans, creating new ways to become a teacher, paying teachers more for innovation and trying to shrink achievement gaps. Those efforts probably won’t be enough to persuade RTTT purse-string pullers, because Washington state has made no progress in two other areas that are highly valued by the feds: merit pay for teachers and charter schools. Other states are making progress in those two areas but here, both concepts are vehemently opposed by the Washington Education Association (the teachers union).

No matter how much pressure is applied by Gregoire, and even if more school districts sign up before the Monday deadline, don’t get your hopes up for any RTTT dollars. Too many other states are more aggressive about reform and present more compelling arguments in what many people now call the “Race to the Trough.”

If and when our Legislature ever gets around to fully funding public education, school boards won’t have to resort to waltzing clumsily. But don’t hold your breath on that ever happening, either.