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Race to the Top - What Tennessee can teach Washington about bipartisanship

Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen
Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen
Public Domain

15 states and the District of Columbia have been selected as finalists for the Race to the Top (RTTT) fund competition. 41 applicants, 40 states and D.C. applied for the fund, the top 16 have made it to the final stage of the competition. Race to the Top is an unusual fund. It is not a handout given to states for a political advantage. In fact, it is just the opposite, and may even be political suicide for the Obama Administration. Its provisions go against unions by supporting charter school initiatives and even merit pay. This sounds very much like a Republican idea.

To win the competition, states must initially apply by writing a competitive proposal. States must be willing to make specific commitments and meet certain conditions. These include using student achievements for teacher evaluations, and limiting or lifting the cap on charter schools. $4.3 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 has already been targeted for the RTTT fund and $2 billion of this amount is expected to be distributed to the winners of this competition. The sixteen finalists are Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Tennessee. A 500-point complex scoring system was used to evaluate the applications, the 16 applicants who scored above 400 made it to finals. The finalists will appear before RTTT reviewers and present their proposals later this month. The ‘Golden State,’ California, didn’t make the final cut. Among all the finalists, Tennessee stands out.

Tennessee is asking for a $502 million grant. Tennessee has an astonishing 100% of its school districts and 93% of its teacher’s unions support and advocacy for the proposal. It has raised the cap on charter schools and has linked 50% of teachers’ evaluations to student achievement. States such as Louisiana, Illinois, and Florida also made strong proposals, but what makes Tennessee’s proposal so strong is the fact that Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen was able to secure bipartisan support and the state application includes a letter of support signed by all seven major candidates for the 2010 gubernatorial election. In addition to the letter of support from the gubernatorial candidates, there is also another letter signed by both Republican Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker as well as by all members of Congress, 5 Republicans and 4 Democrats, from Tennessee. The gubernatorial candidates who signed the letter include four GOP candidates and three Democratic candidates.

Their letter stated, “If our state is successful in Race to the Top, it also must deliver on the proposed programs and investments in a manner that effectively spans the transition in January 2011 from the current governor to the next governor. We recognize the challenges in sustaining education reform across gubernatorial administrations and shifts in the legislature. But Tennessee has a history of meeting these challenges in a bipartisan manner, and we believe the Volunteer state’s work in race to the Top will be no different. We offer our support for Tennessee in the Race to the Top competition. Should our competition succeed in the competition, we will continue the focus on education and work tirelessly to implement the reform necessary to transform our school and offer our children a better future.”

This is an unbelievable act of bipartisanship. Needless to say, Tennessee has succeeded in garnering bipartisan consensus, an admirable feat in today’s highly polarized political climate. However, this should come as no surprise when you take a look at Governor Phil Bredesen’s track record. Governor Bredesen led Tennessee through a fiscal crisis without cutting funding for education. In his first four years, he passed four balanced budgets. In 2006, Bredesen won re-election with 68.6% of the vote over his opponent, a record in the history of Tennessee.

Washington should learn a lesson on bipartisanship from Tennessee.


  • KJ 5 years ago

    Very well said. The Obama Administration can certainly learn a lesson from Governor Bredesen and the extra-ordinary show of bipartisanship.

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