Race to the Top’s Hidden Price Tag

Published November 4, 2010

When the Obama administration dangled $4.35 billion in Race to the Top (RTTT) funds before money-hungry public school systems around the country, educators and politicians in most states reacted as if it were free money for simply singing the school-change tunes the feds wanted to hear.

Of course, the money isn’t free at all. It was carved out of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the “stimulus”), meaning it is borrowed money for which our grandchildren will be on the hook. It is highly doubtful that those future taxpayers will see benefits anywhere close to equaling a price tag that will soar with added interest.

In addition, local and state bureaucrats who competed for RTTT grants like a pack of wolves snapping at juicy pork chops are finding the grants may cost more than they bring in.

For the dozen winning jurisdictions (11 states and the District of Columbia), compliance costs will mount steadily because the feds will be second-guessing and demanding paperwork at every step. Given that the loot will be dribbled out over a four-year period, it is entirely possible that bureaucratic costs will consume any presumed windfall and localities will have to foot the bill to keep the promises they made to Washington.

The first ominous sign is coming in the form of Scope of Work plans that school districts in the RTTT states must submit to the U.S. Department of Education by Nov. 22. Local school systems must spell out in detail their project goals, timetables and budgets. The feds have informed states that if enough local districts miss the deadline, Washington could rescind a state’s entire grant. Published accounts are beginning to show that by the time a state’s RTTT grant is divvied among local districts, the sums are far less substantive than the media hype led many to believe.

For instance, Wicomico County on the Eastern Shore will receive $3.1 million of the $250 million awarded to Maryland. Its preliminary Scope of Work plan indicates that much of the money will be spent on training teachers and principals to use the new national Common Core standards and assessments. Clearly, there is no role for parents in this rigged process.

In addition, Wicomico’s spending plan includes items such as $330,000 to hire teacher mentors on a contractual basis and $650,000 in years three and four of RTTT to buy laptop computers to improve the student/computer ratio. Really? Is there educational value in using hired guns, as opposed to trusted colleagues, as mentors? Or in giving kids laptops that quickly may be damaged, lost, used as toys or otherwise abused?

Although Lee County will receive $9 million of Florida’s $700 million RTTT grant, its human resources officer told Education Week Oct. 13 that the “price tag for carrying out some of the grant’s requirements – particularly improving data reporting – is likely to carry costs above that limit. …”

The Obama administration’s 500-point scoring system for RTTT applications gave extra credit to states that won endorsements from teachers unions. That was a major reason strong reformist states such as Colorado and Louisiana failed to win the Race funds while Hawaii and other states were rewarded for light effort but union consent.

Similarly, with their Scope of Work plans, school districts are supposed to show how they are bringing teachers unions on board with new ways of using student data for teacher evaluation. But there can’t be any real reforms, given the unions’ fierce resistance to using test scores to determine whether teachers should be rewarded or dismissed.

Think “A” for assessments. The new ones being developed under federal sponsorship will shift from reliance on knowledge-based testing to alternative measures of student growth, such as portfolio assessments whereby evaluators examine collections of student projects. Such assessments are subjective and thus much more likely to spare inept teachers, which will keep the teachers’ unions happy.

Meanwhile, our grandkids will get the bill for – and suffer the consequences of – this stimulus scam.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow for education policy with the Heartland Institute.