Frist Op-Ed in USA Today: “Race to the Top swiftly changes education dynamic”

NASHVILLE — Something remarkable is happening in American public education.

In a matter of months, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition engineered the kind of wholesale reform that ordinarily would take a generation to pull off. Ideas once considered to be the realm of conservative education policy are seeing a refreshing bipartisan embrace. In contrast to the partisan feuds defining the health care debate, Race to the Top is remaking public education as a practically non-partisan issue.

Forty states lobbed in plans to the U.S. Department of Education last January in pursuit of $4.35 billion in federal funds to spur innovation in the classroom. The first two winners in the competition — Delaware and my home state of Tennessee — are putting in place some of the most significant school-reform measures in years.

In Tennessee, we’ve got a new law requiring that student success count for half of annual teacher evaluations. Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, paved the way by calling the Republican-led legislature into special session. Four days later, sound ideas that had gone nowhere for years suddenly were law.

Delaware, playing off its history as “America’s first state,” is trying to be first in education reform. New regulations allow the state to directly intervene in failing schools. Data coaches will fan out across the state, using technology and student information to help teachers improve classroom instruction.

The list of new ideas, policies and laws born out of Race to the Top is impressive. In all, 15 states and Washington, D.C., emerged as finalists in the early round of competition. Even though most of them didn’t make the cut, some of them — including Florida and Georgia — are well-positioned for the second round.

To keep the challenge moving, the president is asking for an additional $1.35 billion in funding so that other states can chalk up reform wins that weren’t accomplished earlier.

In my opinion, Congress should concur.

Our problem in public education is clear. Nationwide, just over 70% of students graduate from high school — and only half of those graduates leave prepared to succeed in college, career and life, according to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 15-year-olds in the U.S. rank below their peers in 23 industrialized nations when it comes to math literacy.

Frankly, Americans are tired of a system that’s underperforming. In Tennessee, our State Collaborative on Reforming Education — a group of business leaders, educators and policymakers — is driving change. Across the country, Race to the Top is instilling a renewed sense of urgency for all of us.

To be sure, Race to the Top has its critics. Teachers’ unions view its emphasis on student data and test scores as heavy-handed. Skeptics of big government are frustrated that it took the lure of federal stimulus funds to push through reform. Meanwhile, it’s unclear how fast-drawn state reforms factor into the president’s proposed overhaul of the No Child Left Behind law. And, of course, whether any of these changes translate to student gains remains to be seen.

Nonetheless, let’s give President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan credit: Race to the Top has rapidly pushed massive change into a system of public education that has needed it for a while. We might see some unintended effects. But given the state of American public education, it was time to do something bold and different.

Let’s hope the race eventually leads to a marathon of lasting reform.

Republican Bill Frist, former U.S. Senate majority leader, chairs the non-profit Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education.