03/23/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Staying the Course on the Race to the Top

President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan's Race to the Top grant program is the most promising education initiative in decades, giving the nation an opportunity to take a hard look at raising standards and closing achievement gaps in public education.

The grant program, which had its first deadline this week, will give states that do the most to reform their education systems a share of $4.35 billion in newly available federal grants. With hundreds of millions on the table for states, it's hard to imagine what's not to like. But special interest groups that benefit from a failed status quo have found quite a lot.

When it comes to Race to the Top, the aim of the teachers' unions seems to be: water it down so there is no discernable challenge to the old way of doing things. An appropriate motto would be: "Send us the money, but don't expect change in return."

A cornerstone of the administration's program is encouraging states to adopt much-needed teacher accountability reforms and promoting the growth of charter schools that challenge the system. These reforms appear to be anathema to teachers' unions that have sought to weaken states' applications for the funds. In some cases, unions have even refused to sign on to their respective state proposal.

The unions are made up of many great teachers devoted to their students. However, the position of union representatives on Race to the Top only perpetuates the idea that money is the answer to the crisis in education, without any real systemic change.

In Illinois, when unions realized they couldn't stop the state legislature from tying teacher evaluations to student performance, they worked to weaken legislation so student performance had less weight. The Illinois state union has also insisted on keeping teacher evaluations exempt from public scrutiny under FOIA regulations, which applies to any other public employee.

When it comes to charter school reform, the unions have been no less aggressive. Originally, the Education Department indicated it would adopt strict guidelines that challenged states to open their doors and coffers to charter schools. Threatened by these innovative schools, the unions have waged a campaign to undermine them. As a result, the Education Department reversed field last month and decided to allow states without pro-charter schools laws to compete for Race to the Top funds.

At United Neighborhood Organization, the largest Hispanic-based charter school operator in Illinois, we value our teachers. But our students come first. This mindset has made UNO into one of the nation's many success stories, proving that with high standards and new ideas, accountable teachers and measureable results, schools can improve education. For too long, school districts and special interest groups have been let off the hook by their poor excuses for failure and mediocrity.

We applaud President Obama and Secretary Duncan's willingness to take political risks and challenge the insiders in education, including their union supporters. As the applications from the states come in and the review process begins, the administration and education department must stay the course and not allow special interests to sidetrack their reform agenda.

If there were ever a cause that should create the fierce urgency of now, this is it. We have an opportunity to affect the most transformational education reform in a decade and do what is best for our students.

Juan Rangel is Chief Executive Officer of United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), Chicago's largest Hispanic community-based organization.