Research & Commentary: Race to the Top for School Districts

Published June 14, 2012

In May 2012, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced his department would offer approximately $200 million in competitive grants of up to $25 million apiece that local school districts nationwide can apply to receive. This is the latest iteration of Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion pool of money originally allocated to the Department of Education in the 2009 stimulus package to give to states that developed reforms the department approved.

Proponents of a larger role for the federal government in education lauded the 2012 measure as a way for school districts to push usually noncompliant partners, such as teachers unions, into accepting changes such as teacher evaluations tied to student test scores. Representatives of several large school districts that indicated they would apply said they welcome any new money in the current tight government funding environment.

Proponents of school choice criticized the measure as another in a long tradition of throwing taxpayer money at schools that implement unproven changes dreamed up by high-paid consultants to please the Obama administration. They note previous RTTT winners have almost universally failed to follow through on the promises they made to receive the cash, and that legislating through administrative agencies is unconstitutional and is especially impractical in education. The best people to make decisions about education policies are those closest to individual schools and children, not far-away federal bureaucrats.

Grants tend to create unsustainable “pet programs” rather than contribute to schools’ core mission of educating students for responsible citizenship, distracting local leaders from that responsibility. With U.S. education spending having nearly tripled in real dollars over the past 50 years, giving schools more funds prevents them from doing what they really need to do: Focus on their core missions and cut bloat.

The following documents offer more information about the Race to the Top competition for districts.


Districts Gear Up for Race to Top Scramble
The new Race to the Top competition for school districts favors larger school districts because smaller ones do not have the money and staff to prepare and see through massive grant proposals, reports Education Week. Any grants the districts could receive are extremely small compared with their annual operating budgets, school district leaders report. The grant’s draft regulations require applicants to detail how they would use individual data to “personalize” each student’s education and to promise to tie teacher evaluations to such student data, including individual test scores.

School Officials Fear a Federal Policy Takeover
By expanding its Race to the Top education grant contest to the district level, the Obama administration is for the first time directly dictating policies in individual schools, the Washington Times reports. Several state and local education officials go on record as objecting to the program on grounds it oversteps the Constitution’s bounds for the federal government and intrudes into local control and accountability, state education policy, and school board governance.

Grants to Schools Double-Edged Sword
Because federal grants run only for several years, they frequently lead schools and districts into unsustainable extra programs that collapse when funding dries up or greatly expand local spending after the original grant has left, reports the Utica Observer-Dispatch. Grants also usually help pay for pet programs or initiatives but not for the core duties of local schools.

Race to the Top Redux
Repeated Race to the Top competitions are not only becoming stale but compounding their bad policy inducements to schools, observes Daniel Lautzenheiser in Education Week. The U.S. Department of Education has now run five rounds of the grant competition without pausing to rigorously evaluate whether this $5 billion has been well spent. The hundreds of requirements each set of grants requires are overwhelming, and many states have fallen behind on the promises they made to obtain the money.

RTT for Districts: Taking the Hubris Meter to 11
The U.S. Department of Education’s new wave of Race to the Top promises to be a “mess,” writes Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute. It indulges all the things the federal government does poorly in education: spends gobs of money, micromanages, sounds glitzy and exciting but is more likely to waste time and money, and is at best a distraction for local education leaders who should focus on doing their jobs rather than crafting thousands of pages of grant applications.

RTT for Districts: Four Things I Don’t Love
Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies for the American Enterprise Institute, criticizes the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top grants for school districts on four grounds: the grants will total at most 3 percent of a district’s education spending yet require them to shift their policies in ways that will cost them much more than they receive; winning a grant is conditional on applying DOE-favored policies that never have produced positive results in classrooms; the metrics the DOE wants districts to apply in measuring students and teachers are limited and crude; and the DOE will now start telling local school boards how to conduct their affairs through school board evaluations it will require winners to implement.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the School Reform News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

If you have any questions about this issue or The Heartland Institute, contact Heartland education policy research fellow Joy Pullmann, at 312/377-4000 or [email protected].