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Education Reporter

Reform Advocates Unimpressed by 'Race To Top'
The U.S. Department of Education announced on August 24th that nine states and the District of Columbia will share the remaining $3.4 billion of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top (RTT) grant fund. The competition is meant to spur bold reforms to turn around failing schools, increase the number of charter schools, and overhaul the way teachers are evaluated, among other efforts.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan named Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, and the nation's capital as second round winners that will receive from $75 million to $700 million. Delaware was awarded $100 million and Tennessee $500 million as the only two winners of the first round of competition in March.

Many education analysts and reform advocates expressed surprise and dismay over the list of winners and losers. Mike Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, noted the conspicuous absence of Louisiana and Colorado as particularly "disastrous" for the Obama administration on the institute's Flypaper weblog.

A Fordham report released on the same day as the RTT winners deemed New Orleans to be the "most reform-minded city in the country," while Denver came in an impressive fourth place for "reform-friendliness." Petrilli suggested Secretary Duncan would have done better to fund losers Louisiana and Colorado than grant an award to Maryland, "which nobody in their right mind regards as an incubator of serious reform."

Frederick Hess, American Enterprise Institute director of education policy and lead author of the Fordham study, said he thought the exclusion of Louisiana and Colorado suggested "legitimate concern over the way the program was conceived, the criteria that was designed and the judging that was executed." Hess worries that RTT will not encourage innovation but only reward states that embrace federal government-endorsed reform measures.

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Another policy analyst, Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom, also questioned the selection process. "Who knows for sure how the winners were ultimately determined? But it's hard to be impressed by the list." McCluskey cited New York's "dumbed-down Regents exams," Hawaii's four-day school weeks, and Maryland's "constricting" charter law as reasons to suspect RTT may not be an effective driver of enduring reform.

Other reformers were also dismayed by the selection of three states with a track record of hostility toward charter schools, despite the fact that charter school expansion was explicitly stated as one aim of the RTT competition. "We are pleased to see five states that are strongly supportive of public charter schools among those awarded Race to the Top grants today," said Peter Groff, President and CEO of the national Alliance for Public Charter Schools. "However, we are concerned that the selection of Maryland, North Carolina and Ohio sends the wrong message. Maryland has the worst charter law in the country, North Carolina has a cap of 100 charters that it reached almost 10 years ago, and Ohio has some of the most arbitrary caps in the country." Terry L. Stoops, director of education studies at the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, characterized North Carolina's winning Race to the Top proposal as "make-believe school reform." Stoops explained how the state finessed the charter school issue in its pursuit of federal dollars. "Rather than raise our 100-school cap on charter schools, they pushed a bill through the General Assembly that created 'charter-like innovative, autonomous schools,' presumably to complement our 'charter-like schools without charters' and other 'charter-like school settings' in North Carolina," Stoops said. "Yes, those phrases do appear in our state's application."

Although Secretary Duncan had emphasized the adoption of Common Core academic standards as an important factor in determining which states would receive grants, many states that rushed to meet Duncan's August 2nd deadline were not on the winners list. As of last week, 37 states and the District of Columbia had adopted the English and math standards, even in cases where their own state standards were considered superior.

California, for example, had highly-rated academic standards, but replaced them with the comparatively weaker Common Core framework in the hopes of bolstering its anemic state budget with up to $700 million federal dollars. "Now that California has been passed over for this payday, what has the state gained except weaker standards and forfeiture of its control over its educational direction to Washington?" asked Lance Izumi, senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute in California.

The adoption of Common Core standards may have boosted Massachusetts into the top-ten winners circle, but at the cost of forfeiting what many considered to be the most excellent standards in the nation. Lindsey Burke, an education policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, cautioned that the temporary influx of funding might not prove worthwhile in the long-term. "The money they'll receive from this competition will certainly not cover the costs of throwing out their existing state standards and tests — which were developed at great taxpayer expense — and will not begin to cover the costs of implementing this new, behemoth national standards regime," she said.

The ultimate impact of RTT remains to be seen, but the $4.35 billion grant is merely a drop in bucket of the $100 billion allocated for education in the 2009 federal stimulus spending bill, of which it is a part. In addition, said Lisa Snell, director of education and child welfare programs at the Reason Foundation, "Taxpayers should remain skeptical that $4.5 billion for education reform in the states through Race to the Top can make any difference when the Obama administration is giving states another $10 billion bailout to maintain the status quo through an education jobs program. At best, these education dollars will lead to small changes at the margins." (School Reform News, 8-24-10; edweek.org, 8-24-10)

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