Handout of Federal Education Money Flunks Every Test

Published March 10, 2010

When various legislatures and education officials were considering applications for a slice of the federal Race to the Top fund, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan pressured them to adopt merit pay for teachers and to lift caps on the opening of innovative charter schools.

Many school reformers who support such changes hailed the Obama administration for defying the teacher unions. But with the Education Department’s announcement of 15 states and the District of Columbia as finalists for the first round of grants last week, it is apparent the feds have a different notion of reform in mind, albeit one that has yet to be clearly defined.


— California lawmakers went to the mat with unions to end the state’s ban on the use of achievement data to measure teacher performance, a change Duncan advocated. Yet California was one of the also-rans among the 40 applicant states.

— New York didn’t lift its cap on charter schools, despite the evidence that these public schools of choice are helping boost student achievement in New York City. Yet the state is one of the finalists for a share of the $4.35 billion fund.

— Seven of the 15 finalists have among the weakest charter-school authorizing laws in the nation.

— Kentucky is a finalist even though it has no charter schools, and indeed no law that allows their establishment. Rhode Island, another finalist, says it will start taking into account the impact that teachers have on improvement in student test scores — but it will wait three years before doing so.

Despite Duncan’s promise of “maximum integrity and transparency,” the selection process has been cloaked in secrecy. His department set up a convoluted 500-point scoring system and then handpicked 58 peer reviewers to sift through the states’ applications. Duncan refused to release the reviewers’ names, and their deliberations were conducted behind closed doors. One can only speculate about what kind of presentation impressed these educators, each of whom received $5,000.  The American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess discovered some of the states’ applications online and found them replete with “hundreds of pages of edu-jargon, claims of dubious credibility, and thick appendices of uncertain utility.”

As for Illinois, who is to say it did not enjoy a home-team advantage, given the predominance of Chicago pols in the administration?

Duncan will announce first-round winners in April, and states may apply by June for a second round of grants to be distributed in the fall. Looking upon all this and finding it good, Obama wants to spend another $1.3 billion of our money in this fiscal year on more awards.

Perhaps if Race to the Top accomplishes anything, it will be to kill once and for all the notion that Washington politicians can improve our children’s education.

— Robert Holland is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute of Chicago. His e-mail address is [email protected].