Politics Behind ‘Race to the Top’ Questioned

Published November 12, 2010

The future of the Obama administration’s signature education reform initiative, Race to the Top, may be in doubt with control of the U.S. House of Representatives and a handful of statehouses switching from Democratic to Republican control. 

“I think it was irresponsible of Congress to give [Education Secretary Arne Duncan] $5 billion with no strings attached,” said Rep. John Kline (R-MN), the new chairman of the House Education Committee.

Elected state and federal officials have said politics played a role in the way the competitive grants were distributed. The administration of the program, which Duncan had asked Congress to renew, will likely come under scrutiny from Kline’s committee, the chairman says.

Final Picks Questioned
Nine winning states, plus the District of Columbia, barely had been announced in the competition’s second round in August when administration critics began arguing politics played a role in the selection process.

Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform in Washington, DC, said, “It’s clear that some of these states were chosen for political reasons, as these states offer little or nothing to fundamentally improve schools and learning for all children.”

Duncan dismissed the charges, saying the winners were picked by teams of impartial education experts who had been vetted fully for potential conflicts of interest. “We set a high bar, and these states met the challenge,” he said. “We had many more competitive applications than money to fund them.”

Political Bias Asserted
The judges were guided by a 500-point scoring rubric which awarded points for meeting specified reform criteria. Within those guidelines, however, judges could exercise substantial discretion. Duncan reserved for himself the responsibility of making the final selection of winners and losers, but has said he did not alter any of the scores determined by the judges.

Allen noted, however, at least two states where incumbent Democratic governors were fighting off strong Republican challengers received higher scores than their applications merited.

In Maryland, which won a $250 million grant, Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) was locked in a tight battle with Republican challenger Bob Ehrlich when the winners were announced. Throughout July and August, when Race to the Top judges were assigning final grades to the states’ applications and Duncan was reviewing the results, the RealClearPolitics.com poll average showed the Republican held a small but consistent edge. O’Malley won reelection on Nov. 2.

Similarly, as Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland (D) trailed Republican challenger John Kasich, the Education Department awarded the state a $440 million Race to the Top grant. Ohio edged out New Jersey, where Republican Chris Christie is governor. Kasich defeated Strickland anyway on Election Day.

‘Disappointing and Surprising’

Neither Maryland nor Ohio had been considered a strong contender by most in the reform community. Neal McCluskey, assistant director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Education Freedom, called Maryland’s charter school law “one of the most restrictive in the nation.”

Republican-led New Jersey and Louisiana, by contrast, are seen as strong reformers, but they failed to make the cut. Louisiana’s governor is Bobby Jindal, often cited as a rising star in Republican ranks and sometimes mentioned as a possible challenger to President Obama in 2012.

A state’s importance in the Electoral College also may have affected Race to the Top dollars grants, McCluskey said. Republican South Carolina submitted an application similar in substance and scope to Florida’s, he  said, yet the Palmetto State finished well out of the money while electoral vote-rich Florida finished fourth, receiving $700 million.

“It’s disappointing and surprising,” said Jim Rex, South Carolina’s superintendent of education. “We placed sixth in round one and significantly improved our proposal for round two. National education experts who handicapped the competition… seemed to think South Carolina was a lock to win.”

Union Veto?
A common criticism heard from education reform specialists at the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and The Heartland Institute, among others, concerned the administration’s decision to let teachers unions affect states’ odds of winning Race to the Top money.

Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC, suggested the choice to give points for teachers unions’ approval of a state’s reform efforts was nothing more than an effort to mollify a key disgruntled constituency.

As a result, he said, “The administration is stuck ensuring that states implement their vague, grandiose plans, and that paper assurances of union and school board ‘buy-in’ translate into reality.”

In Colorado, after the legislature adopted a law linking teacher pay to student test scores, only half of the teachers union locals signed on to support the state’s application. The lack of union support cost the state points it could not make up in other areas, and Colorado finished well out of the money at a disappointing 17th.

In New Jersey, where the teachers union is locked in an increasingly bitter battle with Christie over his reform plans, only 1 percent of teachers unions were on board. Had New Jersey’s teachers unions supported the state’s application, the Garden State would have gained 14 additional points—more than enough to displace Ohio as a winner. 

Jim Stegall ([email protected]) is a contributor to Carolina Journal, published by the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh, North Carolina, where a version of this article first appeared. Reprinted by permission.