The first in our series of articles profiling key ideas, organizations, and public figures behind the Obama administration’s place-based agenda and the broader social and education reform movements of which it is part.
It was high above California’s Mojave Desert. It was not just another Monday morning.
Seconds after being released from the carrier plane, SpaceShipOne’s pilot, Brian Binnie, lit the tiny ship’s rocket engines, blasting it past the speed of sound to a record height of 367,442 feet, more than 62 miles above the earth’s surface. After completing its 90-second burn, the spaceship became a glider. Not long afterward, it touched down safely on the desert floor below.
The feat won its design team the coveted $10 million Ansari X Prize, offered to any nongovernmental organization able to launch a reusable manned spaceship into space twice within two weeks. The prize had prompted a space race between several competing aerospace groups, including one led by Burt Rutan, the designer of SpaceShipOne.
That October morning in 2004, Peter Diamandis, head of the X Prize Foundation, congratulated the winners. “Ladies and gentlemen, today we make history,” he said. He went on to call Rutan “a furry mammal among the dinosaurs of the aerospace industry.”
The Ansari X Prize was not the first of its kind, nor even the most famous. In 1927, the Orteig Prize prompted the trans-Atlantic flight of Charles Lindbergh. Later, reflecting on both Lindbergh and SpaceShipOne, Diamandis said the real significance was not in Lindbergh's historic feat, but what followed. "Within 18 months of Lindbergh's flight, the number of passengers rose from 6,000 in 1927 to 180,000 in 1929."
SpaceShipOne, the hoped-for progenitor of a revolution in space travel, was heavily underwritten by Paul Allen of Microsoft fame. Years later, Allen’s Microsoft partner, Bill Gates, would play a defining role in another revolutionary race, this one focused on reforming the nation’s schools.
Racing for the Prize
It did not take long for prizes to draw the attention of the Obama administration. On March 3, 2009, shortly after the president was inaugurated, the prestigious consulting firm, McKinsey & Company, released a report entitled “And the Winner Is …: Capturing the Promise of Philanthropic Prizes.” The report described the history of such prizes and strategies for developing them.
By then, several federal agencies were already playing in the prize game. NASA was one, with its Centennial Challenge, which offers cash prizes to individuals and groups that find innovative solutions to assorted technical challenges. Other agencies included DARPA, the defense research agency, and the Department of Energy. The activity of these agencies prompted the White House Office of Management and Budget to release guidance earlier this year for federal agencies wishing to offer such prizes.
Not long afterward, on April 30 -- the same day the Promise Neighborhoods RFP was released -- the White House hosted a strategy session on prizes. The session, cosponsored by the Case Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Steve Case, founder of America Online, featured several speakers including Jim Shelton, the Assistant Deputy Secretary in charge of DOE’s Office of Innovation and Improvement, the office that oversees Promise Neighborhoods.
During the session, Shelton said the Department had not yet adopted the prize paradigm, but that it had set up an Open Innovation Portal to match funders with nonprofits seeking funding through its Investing in Innovation (i3) program. He said that prizes could be used on that platform to spark innovation and that he had high hopes for it once the competitive pressures of the pending grant process were past.
The Push -- and Push Back -- on Competitive Grants
The Obama administration’s interest in prizes has paralleled its emphasis on competitive grants. Unlike prizes, competitive grants are not new, but the administration’s increased use of them is.
In its most recent budget request sent to Congress, the Department of Education requested a $3 billion increase in competitive funding next year, including another $1.35 billion for Race to the Top, $500 million for Investing in Innovation (i3), more competitive money for charter schools, improvement programs for teachers and schools – and, of course, Promise Neighborhoods.
According to a Washington Post story:
An Education Department analysis found that about 20 percent of spending for kindergarten through 12th grade would flow through competitive grants under Obama's plan, up from 12 percent now. Formula funding overall would dip slightly. The main Title I program would remain at $14.5 billion.
"Race to the Top taught us that competition and incentives drive reform," said Education Secretary Duncan in a prepared statement. "So even as we continue funding important formula programs like Title I and IDEA, we are adding money to competitive programs that are changing the landscape of our education system."
The strategy has drawn criticism from some on Capitol Hill. "We're all for improving our schools," said Rep. David R. Obey (D-WI), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee at a recent hearing. "But right now, many school districts are drowning in a sea of red ink. We need to help them keep afloat -- not have them filling out long applications to compete for grants based on a reform agenda that they're not able to pursue in this economy."
Those sentiments were echoed by a coalition of education groups, called the Learning First Alliance, which included several education organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, the nation’s two leading teachers' unions. In a statement released April 7, the coalition said “ESEA should not divert substantial federal resources into competitive grant programs. This strategy threatens to penalize low-income children in school districts that lack the capacity to prepare effective grant proposals. It risks deepening the disparities between rich and poor districts, effectively denying resources to the students who need them most." A survey by the American Association of School Administrators, a member of the group, claimed a similar position among school administrators.
Many of the organizations in the Learning First Alliance, particularly the teachers' unions, are known for their opposition to many leading education reform proposals, including charter school expansion, merit pay for teachers, and others. Their opposition to competitive grants must be viewed in that light. Still, their equity arguments deserve consideration.
In any competitive process there are winners and losers. It is one thing if the losers are wealthy financiers and entrepreneurs competing in a space race, but when the losers are providing needed services in low-income communities, that is something else. At least two key questions emerge from this possible tension between equity and results-oriented competition. Are these competitions actually improving results? And what happens to the losers?
Race to the Top
Some of the answers could be found in the early results from the Race to the Top program. Like Promise Neighborhoods and the i3 program, Race to the Top has dangled federal money in front of applicants – in this case, states – to drive reform. It is too early to assess i3 or Promise Neighborhoods, but the first round of Race to the Top has already generated considerable analysis and feedback.
Funded as part of the economic recovery package that was signed into law by President Obama shortly after he took office, Race to the Top is a $4.35 billion discretionary fund. When it was first announced, 40 states and the District of Columbia applied. Only two were ultimately approved in the first round – Delaware and Tennessee, which received $100 million and $500 million respectively. States were encouraged to reapply after improving their plans and 35 states and DC did. This time, according to DOE, as many as 10-15 states may be chosen to receive funds, drawing down the last of the funds. As noted earlier, the administration has requested another $1.35 billion to continue the program next year.
The architect of Race to the Top is an education reformer named John Schnur. In the NYT Magazine article that prompted our “Rise of the Reformers” series, Steven Brill described Schnur this way:
Schnur, who runs a Manhattan-based school-reform group called New Leaders for New Schools, sits informally at the center of a network of self-styled reformers dedicated to overhauling public education in the United States. They have been building in strength and numbers over the last two decades and now seem to be planted everywhere that counts. They are working in key positions in school districts and charter-school networks, legislating in state capitals, staffing city halls and statehouses for reform-minded mayors and governors, writing papers for policy groups and dispensing grants from billion-dollar philanthropies like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Bill Gates, along with Education Secretary Arne Duncan; Teach for America’s founder, Wendy Kopp; and the New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein could be considered the patron saints of the network.
The last of these “patron saints,” Joel Klein, is known for at least more thing: his close connections to, and support of, the Harlem Children’s Zone. Geoffrey Canada’s own public statements, which we have previously reported, would seem to lodge him solidly in the reformer camp.
Over the last several months, Schnur and the well-positioned fellow travelers on his speed dial have seen the cause of their lives take center stage. Why the sudden shift from long-simmering wonk debate to political front burner? Because there is now a president who, when it comes to school reform, really does seem to be a new kind of Democrat — and because of a clever idea Schnur had last year to package what might otherwise have been just another federal grant program into a media-alluring, if cheesy-sounding, contest called Race to the Top. It has turned a relatively modest federal program (the $4.3 billion budget represents less than 1 percent of all federal, state and local education spending) into high-yield leverage that could end up overshadowing health care reform in its impact and that is already upending traditional Democratic Party politics.
The reference to “upending traditional Democratic party politics” is a reference to the ongoing battle between reformers and teachers' unions, which is the primary focus of Brill’s article. Not surprisingly, Brill’s laudatory coverage of Schnur and the rest of the education reformers has drawn its share of detractors. One went so far as to compare Brill’s work to that of the NYT’s Judith Miller, who was blamed by some for providing the Bush administration political cover for the invasion of Iraq.
Ongoing disputes between reformers and teacher unions make good magazine copy, but they are of little direct relevance to Promise Neighborhoods. So we return to our previous two questions: Are these competitions actually improving results? And what happens to the losers?
The answer to the effectiveness question appears to be an unqualified yes. Despite this (and perhaps because of it in some cases), RTT has drawn grumbling from the left and right. For example, the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute echoed the positions of some on Capitol Hill, arguing that the reforms are ill-timed. “Whatever its merit in flush times, the substitution of competition for uniform funding has no place in this time of state fiscal crisis,” EPI said in a recent paper.
RTT has similarly drawn some criticisms from the right, mostly for not going far enough. The right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, for example, questioned the durability of reforms once federal dollars are no longer being offered and the state budgetary climate improves. They and other observers cite the obstructionist role of teachers’ unions and suggest they will attempt to roll back reforms at the first opportunity.
Despite these criticisms, the widest judgment of RTT seems to be that it has been a significant success at achieving the reformers’ aims. For example, RTT prompted California, Illinois, Louisiana and Tennessee, among others, to change state laws that placed caps on the number of charter schools or prevented student performance from being tied to teacher evaluations. Disagreements seem to center only on the degree of success and its permanence.
What Happens to Those Left Behind?
That leaves just one last question, that of equity. In any race, there are both winners and losers. Unfortunately, the experience with RTT is less instructive here than we might hope. It is both too early -- and RTT too different -- to draw broad conclusions that are applicable to competitive place-based programs like Promise Neighborhoods.
Despite that, we at UNCA are in the privileged position of being in touch with many planning groups around the nation, so we can offer the following preliminary observations.
The Winners: Promise Neighborhoods planning groups seem to be dividing into two groups. One group, “the winners,” is well-financed, with significant public and private financing, access to specialized consultants, and strong support from academic partners. To a great extent, these planning groups seem to be located in the largest cities in the nation. They typically have strong philanthropic support, often from the nation’s largest private foundations, for whom providing a $250,000 lump sum match is a small matter. These planning groups are often associated with universities, which have significant additional access to financial resources and expertise.
It appears that there are more of these planning groups than there are likely to be Promise Neighborhoods planning grants. However, most of these groups seem to have the necessary financial supports in place to carry on regardless, with or without federal support.
This group most reflects the outcomes sought after in the prize model discussed earlier in this article. To a great extent, such prizes are often insufficient to fully offset the costs to participants. Paul Allen, for instance, is said to have invested more than $20 million in SpaceShipOne in pursuit of the X Prize, but only recovered $10 million in prize money. Other participants received no compensation for their efforts. Still, in these cases, the prize money was almost incidental. Participants were pursuing recognition and other rewards. The prize money merely served as an inexpensive catalyst and small subsidy.
With respect to the “winners,” this prize model seems applicable to Promise Neighborhoods. Many of these planning groups will push ahead regardless of any decisions made by the Department of Education.
Perhaps most important of all, this group does appear to be the group most likely to implement the Harlem Children’s Zone model successfully. As we have previously noted, this is centrally important because the HCZ model itself has caught the imagination of the nation primarily because of its track record of success. Promise Neighborhoods and the administration’s broader place-based agenda depend heavily on continuing and building on that track record of success.
The Aspirants: Nevertheless, the story of the winners is not the whole story. There appears to be a much larger second group of applicants that is not as well-financed or well-resourced as the first. These applicants are equally passionate about their work and equally passionate about the broader place-based movement, but they lack the same access to private and public resources or academic expertise. They are often (but not always) located in smaller cities without strong charitable or research institutions. The lead applicants in these cases are more typically 501(c)(3) charities, rather than university-affiliated programs. They are more likely to be community organizations with deep roots into their targeted communities, but also more likely to lack the resources needed to assemble and plan such things as sophisticated data systems.
The Department of Education appears to have recognized the disadvantages that some groups would face in this process. It is for this reason, and the recognition of certain political realities, that it established separate applicant categories for rural communities and Native Americans.
Unfortunately, these are not the only groups that face disadvantages in the Promise Neighborhoods race. Indeed, many in this group, despite having submitted their Notice of Intent to Apply, have already given up.
With its emphasis on competition and results, the Obama administration is unquestionably sparking a revolution in government. While there will almost certainly be failures along the way, the way ahead looks favorable for an era of sustained social innovation.
But to be truly revolutionary and truly impactful, the administration must do more. It must also develop a plan for lifting up and sustaining the aspirants who also desperately want to serve the children in their communities, but lack the resources to do so.
When it does that -- and only then -- will the administration’s efforts be judged a success.
Next Up: Rise of the Reformers: The Transformers