Why some states didn’t even start the race

With all the publicity surrounding Race to the Top, numerous stories have come out about which states applied, which states made it to the finalist round, and which states will win Round II, but little attention has been paid to the four states who didn’t even join the race in the first place. Alaska, North Dakota, Texas and Vermont are the only states that did apply to Race to the Top (either Rounds I or II).

The RTTT applications were a tremendous amount of work for already overworked state education agencies, so in some ways, I’m surprised that so many states applied in the first place. Alaska and Texas both have a history of not wanting to participate in many national initiatives or associations, and I don’t know enough about North Dakota to guess why it didn’t participate. That leaves Vermont, my home state.

Like Texas, Vermont likes to be different, i.e. there’s still a group  of Vermonters who want to secede and have the state become its own republic. I received a phenomenal public education and while attending school I did not realize how progressive my schools were. I experienced some of the strategies that are now widespread and recommended (i.e. small schools, freshman academies, advisories, distributed leadership teams, hands-on and experiential learning, project-based learning, etc) before they were popular. Many Vermont schools could be vanguard examples for the rest of the country, but that doesn’t mean that other schools aren’t struggling, or that the top could be even better.

I understand that Vermont schools have different needs than much of the rest of the country, but does that mean that there isn’t still room for improvement? Do rural students have the same access to AP courses that Burlington and suburban students do? Are students in all schools reading at or above proficiency levels? Are schools allowed to operate with autonomy and accountability (i.e. charter schools or schools with charter-like conditions)? Are teachers promoted based on other measurements than seniority? Are all decisions made in the best interest of students?

A recent Burlington Free Press blog highlights some of the reasons VT did not participate in the Race, and includes some of the defensive arguments Deputy Education Commissioner Rae Ann Knopf. While some of the arguments are legitimate (such as the federal strings attached to portions of the funding and the different needs of a more rural state) I have a hard time believing that the state couldn’t find a way to work around those restrictions. Vermonters often use the big overbearing corrupt federal government argument as a way to defend the status quo (hence the recent controversy over the firing of a beloved principal of the H.O. Wheeler School in Burlington).

Sometimes, these arguments are completely justified, USED is far from perfect and sometimes federal plans with the best of intentions have adverse (and unintended) consequences. That said, applying for Race to the Top could have allowed more Vermont schools the opportunity to not only Race to the Top, but to surge past other states. Such a federal program could have been used to highlight and bring to scale some of Vermont’s strongest strategies and policies, and more importantly, could have offered the schools that are struggling (which do exist in the state) the chance to truly improve.

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