Keeping the Race to the Top on Track

Today, at close of business, state applications are due for the first round of Race to the Top funds.  Expect 35 – 40 states to send in proposals seeking hundreds of millions of dollars.  Then the work in Washington begins in earnest, as the US Department of Education and a team of peer reviewers evaluate submissions and decide which states have measured up.

Coinciding with today’s deadline and the important work about to begin, Education Next is releasing my new article “Toothless Reform?” which makes the case that previous ARRA education funding hasn’t been used for reform and that the department needs to go to great lengths to ensure that the RTT generates the changes needed.  As I write in the article, “when state proposals hit Arne Duncan’s desk, the secretary must become the toughest schoolmarm in America.”

A combination of factors led states and districts to spend nearly $75 billion in stimulus funding to prop up the status quo.  Though most education observers are sanguine about the RTT’s potential, these same factors—enormous state budget deficits, local resistance to federal education directives, school-level preferences for existing jobs and programs, union opposition—are still in play and could lead to the same disappointing spending patterns.

I encourage the department and its peer reviewers to approach state proposals with significant skepticism and work overtime to ensure that states and districts intend to faithfully implement meaningful reforms.

If you’re interested in the stimulus, education reform, or the Race to the Top, consider giving the article a read.  While education coverage over the next several days is going to focus on state applications and, later, on winners and losers, this article will provide the necessary context.  In short, elsewhere you’re likely to hear lots of state promises, lots of stakeholder excitement, and lots federal crowing, but if this $4.35 billion investment in reform is going to do the trick, the feds will need to develop a terribly critical eye and expend gallons of elbow grease in the weeks to come.

If multimedia is your thing, you can watch a video (with Checker Finn) about the article here or listen to an audio interview (with Joe Williams) here.

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