For awhile now, there has been some cause for concern that the famously tough-minded Wall Street Journal editorial page seemed to be drinking the Kool-Aid when it came to the much-discussed Race to the Top (RTT) grant program. So, it gives much satisfaction to note that this week’s WSJ featured perhaps the savviest editorial yet penned by any major newspaper on RTT. The editorial noted the problems posed in ensuring that states will use the dollars as promised, the concern that grant proposals may emphasize punching required boxes rather than serious plans of action, and the question of what will happen to applications from hard-charging states that couldn’t get union or local school board buy-in.
To date, the administration has received much fanfare for the flurry of activity sparked by RTT. Observers have appropriately noted some of the beneficial legislation that RTT has prompted with regards to charter schooling and data systems. Meanwhile, supporters have glowingly packaged this federal grant program as a transformational initiative, while setting a remarkably low bar for what the administration needs to do in order for the effort to be branded successful. My good friend Andy Rotherham (author of the widely-read Eduwonk blog) has been perhaps the administration’s most effective foil/ally on this. Andy has repeatedly argued that the measure of the Obama administration’s seriousness on reform is its willingness to award RTT grants to only a small number of exemplary states (at least in the first round). Otherwise, Andy has noted, RTT turns into the kind of race “where everyone gets a medal at the end.” The caution has been widely echoed and is generally treated as a bracing warning to Arne Duncan’s Department of Education.
But that interpretation is blind to the broader calculus at play and fails to note how useful the marker is to the administration. For Duncan and his team, the terrific thing about this standard is that it is both elastic and absolutely doable. What constitutes an appropriately “small” or “select” number of states is ambiguous, giving the Department of Education’s spinmeisters much room to work. Moreover, a seemingly tough bar that focuses solely on the numbers game means that all Duncan has to do to claim success is limit the number of grants awarded. Keeping the numbers down may pose some political challenges, but is a whole lot easier than spending this spring inviting questions about the substance and sincerity of the phonebook-thick state grant applications.
With that in mind, the WSJ offered Duncan some terrific advice, noting, “Race to the Top represents less that 1% of what the U.S. spends annually on K-12 schooling, so the heaviest reform work still has to get done at the state and local level. We sympathize with those, such as Texas Republican Governor Rick Perry, who say his state can do better without federal meddling. But as long as Race to the Top exists, Mr. Duncan ought to use it to reward only the very best reform states that want the money, perhaps only two or three in the first round.”
If the Department is going to play the numbers game, then play it for keeps. Two or three states is the kind of number that would signal that the game really has changed, and which would allow the Department to pile serious dollars into a few dead-serious states (Florida? Colorado? Massachusetts?) that may be ready to blaze the trail. Such a move would be a promising sign that that the Department is ready and willing to walk the talk. If not, the WSJ may have helped by encouraging a few reporters to take a closer look at just what’s in those hulking applications.
This piece originally appeared on the Enterprise Blog at AEI.