Race to the Top Offers Last Chance to Salvage Stimulus Spending

Education Next News Alert

For Immediate Release: January 19, 2010
Contact: Andy Smarick, (443) 534-6550, asmarick@edexcellence.net

STANFORD—As states catch their breath after rushing to meet the January 19 deadline for submitting applications for the first round of Race to the Top grants, education researcher Andy Smarick of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute warns that the administration must take steps to ensure that Race to the Top funds are spent in ways that promote reform.

In his article, “Toothless Reform?” which is now available at www.educationnext.org and will appear in the Spring 2010 issue of Education Next, Smarick reviews the impact of the federal government’s education stimulus spending to date. Finding that “local policy prerogatives and dire financial conditions trumped federal pleas for reform and led to the spending of massive amounts of aid on preserving the status quo and protecting existing jobs and programs,” Smarick urges policymakers to heed the lessons learned from that experience and to focus on reducing the gulf between reforms promised and reforms delivered when it comes to the Department of Education’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund.

The government’s stimulus plan (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or ARRA) has already funneled $75 billion in education funds to states and school districts. Because policymakers wanted to ensure that these funds were well spent, Smarick explains, governors were asked to provide assurances that their states were advancing important reforms.  Secretary Duncan continuously reminded states that he expected these funds to be used to innovate and improve student learning, not merely prop up the status quo.

However, notes Smarick, it is now clear that the lion’s share of ARRA education dollars was used to fill existing budget holes rather than to pursue education reforms.  According to a study released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) last year, federal stimulus funds were being used for “retaining staff and current education programs” rather than advancing reforms. The American Association of School Administrators (AASA) conducted a survey of administrators and found that stimulus funds were being used to protect jobs and programs, not to accomplish reform.

Smarick’s article explores how the goal of reform was displaced by the goal of job and program preservation.  He then argues that unless the federal government is very careful, the forces and factors that led to these distressing spending patterns—like huge state budget deficits, local resistance to federal education guidance, and interest group focus on jobs—could similarly influence the Race to the Top, compromising its ultimate impact.

The solution is for the federal government to approach state applications with great skepticism and go to great lengths to ensure that states intend to faithfully carry out their reform promises.  “When state proposals hit Arne Duncan’s desk, the secretary must become the toughest schoolmarm in America.”

Smarick concludes, “In retrospect, it’s easy to see why the new federal funds didn’t lead to reform. Though $75 billion now appears to be a lost cause, it did buy important lessons. If properly applied, these lessons could contribute mightily to the ARRA’s final major initiative”–Race to the Top.

  • Read “Toothless Reform” available online at www.educationnext.org.
  • Watch Education Next’s video interview with Andy Smarick, “Will Education Stimulus Spending Promote School Reform?
  • Listen to Andy Smarick and Joe Williams (of Democrats for Education Reform) discuss efforts to ensure that Race to the Top funds are used to promote school reform inRace to the Top Forecast

Andy Smarick is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and adjunct fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Education Next is a scholarly journal published by the Hoover Institution that is committed to looking at hard facts about school reform. Other sponsoring institutions are the Harvard Program on Education Policy and Governance and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

Caleb Offley (585) 319-4541
Hoover Institution, Stanford University
Stanford, CA 94305-6010

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