Stung by Louisiana's failure to win Race to the Top money in the first round of financing, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., challenged Education Secretary Arne Duncan on the department's criteria for awarding the money, suggesting Wednesday that it overvalued buy-in from every school district and every union.
"This is a battle, this is not a waltz," Landrieu told Duncan, describing education overhaul as a difficult fight against entrenched interests that cannot be expected to begin with anything like unanimous support.
"Nothing in our application was watered down," Landrieu told Duncan at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on the Education Department's 2011 budget. "If you push to get everyone there (to agree), you will give us no choice but to water down."
Landrieu told Duncan that she was not alone among members of Congress who were not pleased by the results of the first round of Race to the Top funding, in which the Education Department in late March awarded the first $600 million to only two states: Tennessee and Delaware.
"I think many members that are driving this reform effort are absolutely taken aback by the posture of this department," said Landrieu, who said the state's failure to make the cut in the first round was particularly jarring given all the praise Duncan and the administration had heaped on the education reform effort in Louisiana.
"Louisiana has done an extraordinary job in very, very difficult circumstances of driving reform and has made huge progress and I know there was real disappointment that the state didn't win in the first round," Duncan said. "I absolutely urge the state to come back and come back strong in the second round. A huge amount of money -- $3.4 (billion) to $3.5 billion -- is going to go out in the second round," which he said will be divided among 10 to 15 states in September.
The state's application had the support of 28 of the 70 school districts in the state, representing just less than half of all students in the state, but more than half of poor and minority students. It also had the backing of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, the Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana, and the Louisiana Association of Principals, but not the Louisiana Association of Educators, the state affiliate of the National Education Association.
"She's right, you know," Louisiana state Superintendent of Schools Paul Pastorek said of Landrieu's critique. "I'd love to get everyone on board, but I've got the Louisiana Association of Educators out there saying I'm trying to destroy public education. You know they just don't want a change and they don't have any solutions to bring to the table."
Joyce Haynes, president of the Louisiana Association of Educators, replied that any flaw in the state applications rests not with her union but with Pastorek, who she said is pursuing "another failed reform" effort that is over-reliant on standardized testing and on the input of Teach for America and others in the Recovery School District instead of bringing union teachers to the table to collaborate.
Landrieu told Duncan that the Obama administration ought to be fully funding Teach for America's request for $50 million in 2011. Teach for America received $21 million this year, but the president's budget calls for replacing direct funding with a competitive grant program, which Kerci Marcello Stroud, spokeswoman for Teach for America, said would not allow the organization to plan and grow at the pace it would like.
"It's harder today to get into Teach for America than it is to get into Harvard Law School," said Landrieu, who described Teach for America as having "accomplished more than all of us together in getting qualified teachers into the classroom."