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One of Dropout Nation‘s constant bits of advice to President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan over the past two years has been to open up the Race to the Top school reform initiative to participation by school districts, charter schools, and community groups. Back in 2010, this site noted that allowing for such participation would “place pressure on states participating in the competition to embrace bolder reforms” and ” force school districts to seriously change their own practices and restructure their relationships with teachers unions”.

So it is good to see that the Obama administration is finally embracing most of our suggestion with the launch of its fourth round of Race to the Top later today. This round doesn’t do all that we suggest. Districts are neither allowed to become enterprise zones of sorts that can allow them to ditch collective bargaining arrangements, nor required to expand school choice (either through abandoning Zip Code education policies such as zoned schooling or by authorizing charters or voucherizing funds) or embrace Parent Trigger provisions that would allow families to take control of schools. But it does allow traditional districts, charter school operators, and American Indian and Alaska Native tribes to possibly gain federal money may finally push school operators on the ground — especially districts — to embrace systemic reform the way earlier rounds of the competitive grant program have made it easier for states such as California and New York to expand charter schools, require the use of student test data in teacher evaluations, and enact measures such as Parent Trigger laws.

One of the least-discussed aspects of advancing reform is the array of political challenges faced by those districts who do embrace the effort. Thanks to state laws that force districts to bargain with National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates, and the considerable political heft that the two unions bring to bear in the form of  lobbying and $TK million in campaign donations to state legislators, reform-minded districts are often outmanned and outgunned at the state level. While districts under control of mayors such as New York City and Chicago can count on the considerable political heft of municipal chief executives (and in the case of the Big Apple, the wallet of Mayor Michael Bloomberg) to beat back traditionalists in Albany and Springfield, districts with traditional school board governance structures often have few tools at their disposal against NEA and AFT locals with waning-but-still-more considerable political influence in statehouse corridors.

The now-stillborn school reform effort undertaken by the Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, flourished under reform-minded California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (whose state board backed charter school chain Green Dot’s successful move to force the district into a corner) and a state legislature that was seeking a share of Race to the Top dollars. Now that the NEA and AFT can count on Schwarzenegger’s successor (and once-and-future governor) Jerry Brown and the state legislature to be at their proverbial beck-and-call (and the AFT now assured of a majority on L.A. Unified’s board), Supt. John Deasy has had to roll back efforts to expand choice and has had to hope on lawsuits by reformers to give him the edge in revamping the district’s woeful teacher evaluation system. Even the presence of a reform-minded governor and legislature doesn’t ensure that districts pushing to overhaul their operations won’t struggle with entrenched traditionalist constituencies opposed to any change — especially if the state still requires the district to reach consensus with the union. This can be easily seen in Buffalo, N.Y., where the AFT local has consistently opposed the district’s effort to implement the new state evaluation system championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. These are just the reform-oriented districts. Traditional districts unwilling to change any aspect of their operations will only do the bare minimum unless there is some benefit (either in the form of money or flexibility) to doing so.

In expanding Race to the Top to include districts, the Obama administration has given reform-minded districts another tool for beating back opposition to more-stringent teacher evaluations and other efforts. As reform-minded governors of both parties could use the federal presence (both in the form of Race or the No Child Left Behind Act) to sustain their efforts, so can counterparts in school districts in their face-offs with NEA and AFT locals. Race’s requirement that school operators use student data in evaluating teachers and leaders, for example, will help superintendents in their contract negotiations. By supporting the efforts of reform-minded districts, the Obama administration can also force those in suburbia that have largely resisted reform to begin taking steps toward transforming their own operations. And in requiring evaluations for principals and other school leaders, the Obama administration is taking a strong stance on requiring the key adult players in schools to be held accountable for nurturing the genius and talents of children in their care. As pointed out in this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast on school leadership, principals and superintendents foster cultures of low expectations not only make it difficult for high-quality teachers and leaders to do their jobs, their neglect and malpractice gives license to laggards and the criminally abusive in schools to do the same.

By allowing charter school operators considered districts under state law to play in Race to the Top, the Obama administration is also signaling that the old-school definition of public education embraced unthinkingly by education traditionalists is out the door. As I noted earlier this month, there is nothing in state constitutions that spell out exactly what public education must look like or whether it should be provided in the form of traditional districts. It is time for traditionalists to stop the sophistry and accept that the best way to provide high-quality education to all children is by offering a wide array of opportunities through various means.

An even greater possibility for reform lies in the move by the Obama administration to allow American Indian and Alaska Native tribes, which have long complained about being left out of these efforts, to participate in Race to the Top so long as they operate schools under the purview of the federal Bureau of Indian Education or through their tribal education department in partnership with districts. Certainly the fact that Native groups are  an important (and increasingly activist) political constituency for the administration played a part in the decision, as did President Obama’s signing of Executive Order 13592 (which requires the Department of Education, the Department of Interior and other agencies to collaborate on improving education for Native students). But the move may now mean that tribes and Native education advocates may become strong players in the reform arena. This is an area ripe with opportunities for reformers to help all children succeed. The schools run and overseen by BIE have been one of the ghettos of American public education, with a longstanding history of perpetuating abuse and malpractice (educational and otherwise).  The current director of the agency, Keith Moore, has made it clear that its schools must embrace the use of data in structuring instruction and operations, while tribes such as the Navajo Nation are asking tough questions about how schools on reservations and outside of them serving children from their communities are being managed. And with other efforts coming into place such as the Department of Education’s pilot competitive grant program to develop partnerships between tribal education departments and state education agencies, and the partnerships that are developing between tribes and traditional districts, tribal participation in Race to the Top could lead to helping the most-neglected of our poor and minority children.

Obama and Duncan deserve praise for pushing for the concept of competitive grants in spurring reform, and for making the strong case for ditching the old formula-based approach to doling out federal education dollars (even if some congressional Republicans such as California’s Duncan Hunter put themselves in the odd position of ignoring Ronald Reagan’s legacy by effectively pushing for maintaining the status quo). And with this round of Race to the Top, the Obama administration may spur even more reform right at schoolhouse doors.