Media Advisory: More States Drop Out of “Race to the Top”

June 03, 2010
Ben Boychuk

Tuesday was the deadline for states to submit applications for the remaining $3.75 billion in federal “Race to the Top” grants. Fewer states decided to participate in the second round of the competition, which awarded $600 million in March to Delaware and Tennessee. States sitting out the current round include Alaska, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the winners of round one in March, he stressed how “stakeholder support” and “statewide buy-in” were critical to success. Several states were unable to win support from teachers unions, which oppose most of the reforms Race to the Top prescribes.

The following experts point out some of the drawbacks and strings attached to the Race to the Top program, and why those states were right to opt out of the second round. The Education Department is expected to announce winners in September.

The Heartland Institute’s policy studies and other scholarship have been at the forefront of school reform issues throughout the United States for nearly three decades. In your coverage, you may quote from the experts’ comments below or contact them directly for more information.


“It may be surprising to see politicians in cash-strapped states turning down a chance at additional federal dollars, but on inspection it isn’t difficult to understand. The Obama administration says Race to the Top doesn’t mandate anything, but the contest set specific rules for states to adopt or risk missing out on a piece of the action.

“The larger problem with Race to the Top is it’s a sideshow. Congress included $100 billion for education in the 2009 stimulus, of which the $4.35 billion grant program was a small part. Why the hullabaloo? Because it’s a distraction from the Obama administration’s larger effort to further centralize education policy in Washington, DC. State officials are right to be wary that Race to the Top opens the door to more federal meddling in what is and always has been their proper domain.”

Ben Boychuk
Managing Editor, School Reform News
The Heartland Institute
(818) 389-2931
bboychuk@heartland.org

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“At the starting line, Race to the Top seemed promising for the cause of school reform. Instead of just divvying up on a per-pupil basis this $4.5 billion set-aside within the federal stimulus, the Obama Education Department would make awards on a competitive basis to states that generated innovative plans for boosting learning. Meanwhile, a parallel state-led consortium to develop Common Core standards for teaching English and math also inspired confidence that reform could advance through voluntary brainstorming.
 
“Unfortunately, as the rules of the Race became clearer, along with the machinations behind the Common Core, many state and local officials, and the grassroots, grew wary as the second leg of competition began, and at least a dozen states dropped out of the running altogether.

“Instead of seeking the states’ best ideas, the feds were prescribing precisely what actions they wanted, by means of a complex 500-point judging scheme. Moreover, far from being ‘voluntary,’ adoption of the Common Core standards has become a practical necessity for scoring enough points to win Race to the Top cash. That means states would have to scrap their own standards, despite heavy investments of time and tax money.
 
“In short, the Race to the Top has degenerated into a race over the cliff and into an abyss of centralized control from which there would be no return for K-12 education.”
 
Robert Holland
Senior Fellow for education policy
The Heartland Institute
(312) 377-4000
rholland@heartland.org

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“The Obama administration's Race to the Top funding program would be better named the ‘Washington Race to Control’ program. President Obama is using the carrot of more federal education dollars to force states to change their laws according to Washington’s requirements and, most disturbing, to adopt national academic content standards that will lead to a national curriculum and national testing.

“States that receive more funding from Obama’s education department will win only a pyrrhic victory since they and their fellow states will lose their autonomy and power to make the most critical decisions about what goes on in their classrooms. Worse, parents and the public will see their ability to influence policies at the local level disappear, most likely forever.”

Lance Izumi
Koret Senior Fellow and Senior Director of Education Studies
Pacific Research Institute
(916) 448-1926
lizumi@pacificresearch.org

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“It is clear that many states are beginning to reconsider the merits of the Race to the Top program. They see an administration that has been lauded as ‘reform-minded’ but are getting clear signals to the contrary. Race to the Top has lost its luster among state leaders who see the status quo being reinforced through President Obama’s signature education agenda. Teachers unions are favored above meaningful reform, and Washington tries for the biggest federal overreach since 1965 by imposing national standards on states.

“Benjamin Franklin warned against giving up ‘essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety.’ That’s a good caution for states that would sign on to the Common Core standards movement in order to obtain a few Race to the Top dollars. And it’s a good sign some state leaders aren’t ready to relinquish their educational autonomy.”

Lindsey Burke
Policy Analyst
The Heritage Foundation
(202) 608-6081
lindsey.burke@heritage.org

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“Race to the Top has spurred some action in state legislatures around the country in response to both rounds of funding. But when it is all said and done, there is likely to be only marginal lasting impact on the existing power structures and special interests. Funding is likely to trickle down traditional education funding channels, guided largely at the discretion of state agencies, school districts, and bureaucrats.

“How does this transform the status quo? Secretary Duncan should be careful not to oversell Race to the Top, because the vast majority of K-12’s primary stakeholders—families—are unlikely to notice the effects.

“Expanding competition in K-12 education is a good thing. States are competing for funds, but RTTT is missing a big opportunity. A more far-reaching alternative is to establish incentives for schools to compete for students. It would be more impressive if RTTT directly engaged families and entrepreneurs through vouchers and grants, bypassing a lot of the existing political structures in K-12 that serve as quicksand. RTTT should foster competition, autonomy, and innovation at the school level, not at the state and district levels.”

Paul DiPerna
Research Director
The Foundation for Educational Choice
(317) 681-0745
paul@edchoice.org

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“The key question now becomes whether unions will continue to drive the Race to the Top reform agenda. In the first round, union consensus was an important factor in awarding the RTTT grants. The unintended consequence of this criterion is that some states may have strong applications with weak union support.

“California is a case in point. The state’s education reform plan would link teacher evaluations to student performance and better use data to improve teaching. The Los Angeles school district, for example, would be able to use federal RTTT dollars to support work they are already doing to improve teacher evaluations and data-driven decision-making. However, the lack of union support could hurt California’s chances under RTTT. Both the California Teachers Association and the United Teachers of Los Angeles have failed to support the state RTTT application.

“The bottom line for school reform that is driven by federal dollars is that last year the ARRA included $100 billion in education cash for schools with no strings attached and $4.3 billion for education reform through RTTT. The $4.3 billion has strings attached that include union buy-in before states can move forward with their reform agendas. That amounts to a score of status quo, 20, and real education reform, one.”

Lisa Snell
Director of Education & Child Welfare
Reason Foundation
(310) 391-2245 or (951) 218-1171 (cell)
lsnell@reason.org