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Race to Nowhere

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Late last month, Governor Bob McDonnell pulled Virginia out of the federal “Race to the Top” funding competition.

It should not have been surprising.

Virginia’s Round 1 application for $350 million, submitted in early January, ranked a dismal 31 out of 41 applications. Despite enthusiastic efforts by Virginia’s new Secretary of Education to buff up the application, the Commonwealth’s proposal might well be beyond repair.

Looking at Round 1’s score sheets, it seems clear there are two reasons for this.

First, is the reluctance of Virginia to sign onto any scheme of national standards – especially standards that, as McDonnell noted, “have not been completed, implemented, or fully evaluated.” – a position first taken by the Kaine Administration and shared by most of the Commonwealth’s leading legislators and educators. As the first state to adopt more rigorous standards, the issue is a source of pride for the Commonwealth and there is a reluctance to allow the feds to impose an overlay on the ground we were the first to plow.

Just as critically, there is a belief that Virginia’s Standards of Learning (SOLs) are stronger and more rigorous than the federal Common Core proposals under discussion, and an early read of the draft federal standards suggested there was truth to the claim. The Obama Administration was asking states to sign onto standards and assessments that haven’t been finalized or validated – tantamount to being asked to buy a house before you’ve had it inspected — and one can hardly blame Virginia for joining a growing list of states that have declined.

That refusal to sign onto common standards in Round 1’s application cost Virginia 35 points – about half the number needed to reach “finalist” stage and a quarter of the points needed to receive the federal grant.

But the Obama Administration also placed a primary emphasis on “buy-in” from local education stakeholders – particularly local school divisions (known as “Local Education Agencies”).

And here, Virginia failed miserably – a fact recognized by application reviewers: “…troublingly few of the districts were willing to commit to using evaluations for critical decisions or the state’s plan for turning around low-performing schools,” said one, noting “fewer than half of LEAs are willing to commit to the state’s plan for measuring the effectiveness of professional development.”

Another pointed out that “only 46 percent have committed to conduct annual evaluations of teachers and leaders.” A third raised concern “about the possibility of not only lack of cooperation but also outright resistance” by local school divisions to education reforms.

Together, the failure of local School Boards to “buy-in” cost more than 100 points, and arguably a $350 million grant.

What were the proposals to which so many school divisions offered “outright resistance?”

  • 71 percent of school divisions opposed developing a plan that would ensure “equitable access to highly effective teachers and principals” for low-income children;
  • More than half of school divisions opposed establishing “clear approaches to measuring student growth … and measure it for each student;”
  • 63 percent opposed designing and implementing “rigorous, transparent, and fair evaluation systems for teachers and principals” that use multiple rating categories but “take into account data on student growth;”
  • 60 percent opposed conducting “annual evaluations of teachers and principals that include timely and constructive feedback” and to providing teachers and principals with data on their student’s academic growth as part of the evaluation;
  • And an astounding 76 percent opposed using one of four different intervention models to turn around the state’s persistently lowest-achieving schools.

In other words, up to three-fourths of Virginia’s local School Boards oppose measuring annual student academic growth, developing a system for using student growth as a part of teacher and principal evaluations, ensuring poor students get the same quality teachers as wealthy students, using established models to turn around failing schools or even providing annual employee reviews.

Simple things like annual reviews based on accomplishments are standard procedure in most business offices. Without them, it’s hard to tell what needs to be done to improve lagging performance or to identify high performers. Annual Reviews are a hallmark of best practices in quality schools and contribute mightily to reducing student achievement gaps.

Why are they wrong for teachers and schools?

Sure, these things cost money – but that was the point of Race To The Top funding: To pay for doing them. For example, the City of Petersburg – where most of the schools have been in desperate shape for more than 12 years – would have received more than $1 million under this plan. Instead, Petersburg said “No” to the entire proposal.

While McDonnell’s decision is laudable, the resistance of so many local school divisions is not, and parents and taxpayers might well ask them a simple question: “Why don’t you want to do the things you ought to be doing in the first place?”

This commentary is adapted from one first appearing in The Richmond Times-Dispatch on June 2, 2010. Chris Braunlich is a former member of the Fairfax County School Board, and vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessary reflect the opinions of the Institute or its Board of Directors. He may be reached at

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