Commentary: Reading the moving tea leaves on 'Race to the Top'

It's hard enough to read tea leaves without having somebody rearrange them all the time.

Like Arne Duncan, the man put in charge of President Obama's plan to dangle a few billion dollars in front of the nation's schools to get them to do what they've avoided for years — modernize their education systems.

It's called the Race To The Top and might be the best-spent federal dollars ever. By offering $4.3 billion in grants that only a dozen or so states ultimately will win, Obama and Duncan have enticed nearly every state to make changes.

And not just any changes. All tie directly into the president’s agenda for education — strict standards, testing to measure progress, aggressive interventions in the worst schools and tougher evaluations of teachers and principals to reward the best and get rid of the worst.

Decades have been consumed to take small steps along these lines. Then, in less than a year, state after state has passed laws to accomplish most of the reforms. Many — Washington included — have had to either entice teacher unions to go along or try to force changes past them.

The unions that went along did so for two reasons — they were able to get promises of more financial support for schools and they realized the RTTT train had momentum. Better to climb on board, however reluctantly, than try to stand in the tracks.

But they felt a bit jilted. Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers were strong supporters of Obama. Yet once in office he began pressuring them to give on core principles such as opposition to merit pay, resistance to holding teachers directly accountable for student test scores, suspicion that evaluation systems would be used as a weapon.

To salve hurt feelings, Duncan started talking about "buy-in" and included extra points in the lengthy RTTT criteria for union support.

"(Duncan) was clear with us," Gregoire said during the legislative session in defense of a bill many thought too weak. "Work with the unions, get them to buy in, get them to be part of the solution and get them not to be a barrier when we go forward.

"You can say you want a stronger bill," she said. "If I wrote it by myself it might be completely different." But she decided to bargain, mostly with the WEA.

"So everybody in there compromised. No one got what they wanted," Gregoire said. She's now on a campaign to get all 295 state school districts and their unions to sign on.

When Duncan announced the round-one winners on March 29, he seemed to confirm Gregoire's reading.

"Perhaps most importantly, every one of the districts in Delaware and Tennessee is committed to implementing the reforms in Race to the Top, and they have the support of the state leaders as well as their unions," he said.

But these attempts to draw the teachers unions in had an unintended result. If getting their support was valuable if not mandatory, then the unions were going to get more out of the deal than they had before.

Indiana has dropped out, blaming union resistance to reforms on charter schools, teacher tenure and use of test scores. In Colorado, unions that supported the state’s round one application is withholding support now, again over teacher tenure.

So it came time for another cup of tea. Last week Duncan made several public statements suggesting buy-in is overrated.

"At the end of the day, we're going to (fund) the strongest proposals whether they have tremendous buy-in or not," Duncan told a group of business leaders, as reported by Education Week. And he told the Wall Street Journal that, "watered-down proposals with lots of consensus won't win."

Washington's RTTT bill passed before the round one winners were announced. We will go with what we have and hope it wasn't weakened too much in what might now prove to be a misreading of Duncan's demand for buy-in.