Obama's 'Race To The Top' Slows To A Crawl

Barack Obama’s $4 billion education gamble that he has dubbed “Race to the Top” isn’t turning out the way he hoped, rewarding just two states so far, producing many plans but implementing no new reforms and raising political suspicions the administration is playing with a marked deck.

The idea behind Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s brainchild is to wage a high-stakes lottery competition that will reward states who can come up with innovative reforms to boost student achievement with huge payoffs, courtesy of the beleaguered U.S. taxpayers.

But after more than a year of battling and bickering with state labor union leaders on issues ranging from school choice, charter schools and tying teacher pay to student performance, the early reviews are in: Obama’s “Race to the top,” while full of promises, isn’t making the grade. 

Duncan’s idea was flawed from the beginning. It was supposed to incentivize the nation’s education system to improve K-12 schools by offering a huge pot of money to the states that won a nationwide competition for the best reform plans. But after the first judging round at the Department of Education was over earlier this year, only two states were chosen, leaving the losers wondering whether the whole enterprise was a waste of their time and resources. 

It goes without saying that American K-12 public education needs fundamental reform, but Duncan’s $4.35 billion payoff is not going to have much if any effect on a nationwide school system that costs an estimated $667 billion a year. It’s small even by Obama’s big-spending standards which have poured unprecedented amounts of money into education in the last year and a half.

His jobs and economic stimulus bill included about $100 billion in school assistance to the states. “The tragedy is that nearly all of this $100 billion is being dispersed to the states by formula, which allows school districts to continue resisting reform while risking very little in overall funding,” the Journal editorialized.

All of this is on top of the federal government’s annual spending binge race to push its education budget into the stratosphere. While Democrats insisted President Bush’s No Child Left Behind plan was badly underfunded, federal elementary and secondary spending skyrocketed from $28.3 billion to nearly $38 billion, a 34% hike. Over Bush’s eight years, it rose by over 40%.

Nevertheless, cash-strapped states were anxious to compete for Obama’s new slush fund and 40 plans poured into Duncan’s office. But when the judging was over, only two states emerged winners: Tennessee ($500 million) and Delaware ($100 million).

Duncan said Delaware and Tennessee simply scored the most points for their plans, 454 and 444 respectively. But critics weren’t so sure and questioned the administration’s standards and whether the states could meet the high expectations for reform in the face of stiff teacher union opposition.

Front for Federal Control?

Others feared the Race to the Top was really a government buy-off scheme to surreptitiously impose draconian federal regulations on the nation’s educational system. 

“The Obama Administration is being pretty successful at getting its educational agenda pushed through outside of having to reauthorize No Child Left Behind. Race to the Top is achieving a lot of what the administration wanted to do—getting states to sign on to ‘common standards.’ National standards is huge and they are doing that through Race to the Top,” Lindsey Burke, the Heritage Foundation’s chief educational analyst, told HUMAN EVENTS.

When the administration announced its Race to the Top program last year, officials said one of its chief purposes was to reward states that called for the creation or expansion of charter schools. But when Duncan announced the winners in March, it was “disappointing that charters weren’t even mentioned in Mr. Duncan’s prepared statement and that the two winning states have some of the country’s weaker charter laws,” the Journal noted at the time.

Throughout this competition, the Obama Administration hoped that the state plans would have the support of the teachers union. But critics pointed out that many legislatures were unlikely to take on the unions and school boards who have been among the biggest obstacles to reform, making the implementation of real and substantive innovations more remote. 

Two of the applicant states who lost were Florida and Louisiana, where the reforms sought more teacher accountability and school-choice voucher plans to allow parents to pull their kids from failing schools.

In a number of states, where teacher unions had withheld their support from plans in the first round, many threw their support to the second-round applications last month as a result of concessions that watered down or dropped provisions they opposed. 

Looking to 2012

The strong scent of politics permeated this year’s first round in the competition. A number of analysts have pointed out that the two winners were states where two leading elected figures—Rep. Mike Castle of Delaware and Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee—were being targeted by the White House for support in the upcoming legislative battle to pass President Obama’s revised No Child Left Behind bill. 

Many on the list of 16 finalists in the first round, out of the 40 states that submitted applications, looked like they were chosen from an electoral wish list for the 2012 presidential election, including Colorado, Florida, Ohio, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Union Influence

Union opposition has been a key factor in shaping these plans, and therein lies one of its critical architectural flaws. In Indiana, for example, state school superintendent Tony Bennett said teacher unions’ opposition led to his decision to drop out of the application process. 

In Minnesota, Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty attacked the state teachers union as obstructionist after it had rejected the state’s application. 

“The job of the teachers’ union is to protect the union members, but the main role they are playing now is the primary obstacle to passing any sort of reform,” said a top adviser to the governor. 

The second round of applications will be judged in September and already 35 states and the District of Columbia have submitted new plans, but nine states who entered the contest’s first round and lost had not reapplied by the June 1 deadline.

Some, like Minnesota, said poor teacher union support had made a compromise plan impossible to achieve. A number of other states dropped out of the running because they feared the initiative was a rearguard federal scheme to enact common nationwide standards.

After officially beginning the second round judging last week for the remaining $3.4 billion, Duncan said the competition, despite little to show for it so far, was a success. “Every state that applied now has a blueprint for raising educational quality across America,” he said. 

But the results of Duncan’s giveaway competition so far haven’t yielded much. That only two out of 16 merited approval suggests that either there was more reform-killing consensus than he wanted, or far more in the way of conservative reforms than the Obama Administration could stomach.

Once again, Washington is trying to engineer better educational outcomes by throwing more federal money at our public schools. But if $800 billion isn’t leading to improvements, it’s hard to see how another $4 billion is going to produce improved student test scores that remain as elusive as ever in the face of intransigent labor union opposition to school choice and teacher accountability. 

As for the chances of Obama’s big-spending revision of No Child Left Behind being enacted, Heritage’s Lindsey Burke says “getting NCLB reauthorized or even considered will be a heavy lift this year.”