A Skeptic’s View of Race to the Top

While the first Race To The Top applications won’t be submitted until later this month, some observers already see evidence that this initiative might be a game-changer.

One especially bullish view comes from Democrats for Education Reform.  Describing RTTT activity in a number of states, DFER allows that it is “stunned” by the “tremendous wave of edu-political reform which has been unleashed by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and the Obama administration in such a short time.”

An alternative view — mine — is more skeptical.

Let’s consider who the players are.

At the state level, education bureaucrats, who have presided over decades of K-12 malaise, are preparing RTTT applications.  These applications will reflect a flurry of action by legislators and governors, most of whom emerged in the last year from a long spell of educational policy hibernation or indifference.  Suddenly, they are brimming with bold ideas and are eager to tell Education Secretary Arne Duncan what they think he wants to hear.

And at the federal level there is a cadre of political appointees and civil servants in the Department of Education who have just watched Duncan and President Obama stand idly by as Congress buried the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program.  This largely anonymous group will be scrutinizing the mountain of paper about to descend on the department.  They will be submitting recommendations to Duncan as to which states deserve a share of the $4 billion RTTT pot.

Is it too cynical to suggest that this is a process destined to produce a low-risk menu, one wrapped in the tired rhetoric of reform that is a staple of American public education?  Where in this process are the charter school innovators that much of the educational establishment wants to shut down or contain?  Where are the private school operators with a track record of real results?  And, most importantly, given the broader political climate, will Duncan and Obama be willing to push any items that rankle the National Education Association?

Finally, where is there evidence that one-time federal grants are the missing ingredient?  As Professor James Guthrie describes in “The Phony Funding Crisis,” from the most recent issue of Ed Next, public education has been on the receiving end of substantial resources over a period of decades.

For RTTT to work, we need to accept that Arne Duncan is singularly able to apply an extra few billion dollars in a surgical way that will change the game.  We need to believe that the absence of someone such as Duncan — and a one-time infusion of money — constitute the missing ingredients.

Incidentally, as I will describe in a separate post, Wisconsin’s chances for RTTT money continue to plummet.  So much for the President’s visit to Madison in November and the advance word from the White House that Wisconsin was planning bold changes.

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