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'Race to the Top' actually forcing states to run


Moments ago, President Barack Obama signed the reconciliation bill reforming the student loan system and expanding Pell grants into law. But the most interesting education news is elsewhere: The administration has announced the winners in the first round of “Race to the Top” grants, and only two states, Delaware and Tennessee, made the cut.

Race to the Top is a $4.35 billion grant program created in the stimulus package. You can read the official description here, but the short version is that the states submit proposals to improve their education system to the federal government, and if the Feds approve, the states get a pot o' money with which to implement the plan. The idea isn't just to fund public schools, but to use the promise of federal money in a time of strapped state budgets to empower reformers. The program has garnered bipartisan praise, including a glowing column from David Brooks.

But it's hard to say no to states. A lot of people worried that the government wouldn't be very rigorous in its selection process, so there'd be little incentive for states to work for the funds. Think again. Out of 16 finalists, the administration only gave money to two of them (which, as Jay Matthews notes, will make the results easier to track). That means there's more than $3 billion left in the pot. And the efforts made by the winners are instructive: Tennessee's legislature, for instance, met in two special sessions and passed a law lifting the cap on charter schools. It also got endorsements from 93 percent of the state's teachers unions.

This is empowering reformers in other states to demand similar efforts. New York finished second-to-last, leading Mike Bloomberg to criticize the state legislature for not lifting its cap on charter schools. "We are not going to qualify unless the state understands this," he said. And that's where the promise of the program really lies: Using the money to get the states to make legislative changes they wouldn't otherwise make, and unite stakeholders who wouldn't otherwise come together. The fact that states are in particularly desperate financial times also means the promise of federal money exerts a stronger pull than would ordinarily be the case.

Now the competition goes to a second round, and states that want the money know what they need to do, and know the administration won't give them funds if they don't do it. And in the 2011 budget, the government asked for another pot of money to run another round of these grants, this time letting non-state entities like communities compete. And so it will go. Traditionally, the federal government has had trouble doing much on education because they have a lot less power over it than people think. Most of the important decisions are made at the state and local level. The Obama administration is using federal money to influence that decision-making. And if they keep being this tough about who gets the grants, it just might work.

Photo credit: By Alex Wong/Getty Images

By Ezra Klein  |  March 30, 2010; 12:30 PM ET
Categories:  Education  
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Next: Yes, America can regulate its banks


This sounds logical.
Like a slush fund,
4.35 Billion In,
600 Million Out.

Washington Math.
And these are the same people
who trashed bush's plan,
cuz it forced schools to be

'Think Less, You will understand More'

Posted by: simonsays1 | March 30, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

One slight correction: New York finished second to last among the 16 finalists, but it ranked 15th among the 41 states that applied for a RTTT grant.

Posted by: walkerc1 | March 30, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

Working in the school system in one of the two states that got money, I will say the enthusiasm on the front lines is muted. I was excited, but other folks (with many more years in the school system) were not so enthused, worried more about the strings that will be attached than the amount of money (which, distributed over the large number of school systems in the state, won't exactly be gigantic).

I suppose it depends on the strings, regarding what sort of sometimes ill-considered changes have to be rolled out state wide, that sort of thing. We shall see.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 30, 2010 1:17 PM | Report abuse

A decade from now, we'll be looking back on Arne Duncan with the same kind of fondness we currently have for Robert Rubin--that is, none at all. Charter schools are the credit default swaps of education.

Posted by: mthand111 | March 30, 2010 1:26 PM | Report abuse

I love the idea of this program. Much better than nclb. I hope that translates into better teachers and Students

Posted by: visionbrkr | March 30, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

I love the idea of this program. Much better than nclb. I hope that translates into better teachers and Students

Posted by: visionbrkr | March 30, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

Since when did the number of charter schools allowed become a prerequisite for a good education system?

Posted by: AuthorEditor | March 30, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

Agree fully with mthand and AuthorEditor -- actual charter school performance falls far short of the enthusiasm expressed by Duncan and Rhee and other so-called reform advocates. And the Chicago schools results on NAEP don't exactly make the Windy City a great model for others around the US. Ezra, be more skeptical - maybe not as much as Bob Somerby, but in that direction!

Posted by: bill0465 | March 30, 2010 1:55 PM | Report abuse

@visionbrkr: "I love the idea of this program. Much better than nclb. I hope that translates into better teachers and Students"

Well, I work in one of the systems it affects (as well as having one child--soon two--in it), so I'll let you know how it works out.

I remain cautiously optimistic on that front.

Home schooling and vouchers both have a better track record than charter schools. Wonder why the emphasis on charters. Not really against that, per se, just wonder why, if the idea is performance, why not emphasize more effective alternative tactics?

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 30, 2010 2:00 PM | Report abuse

This sounds logical.
Like a slush fund,
4.35 Billion In,
600 Million Out.

Washington Math.
And these are the same people
who trashed bush's plan,
cuz it forced schools to be

'Think Less, You will understand More'


I'm curious--why is it that the stupidest contributors here at the WaPo always seem to write in free-form verse? Is it a left-brain, right-brain thing?

On the topic of education, there was a fantastic quote from one of the reformers in re: WTU and old-skool teachers who claim they don't want to "teach to the test":

Look, when 60% of your students are scoring "Below Basic" on CAS let's not talk about "teaching to the test." That's pathetic. Teaching them anything would be a start.

Posted by: antontuffnell | March 30, 2010 2:13 PM | Report abuse

The White House and Duncan want more charter schools. Essentially the latest Ed. fad. Such schools have selective admissions, just like pricey private schools. That's the secret to whatever success they can claim. Is that what we want - using public funds to subsidize exclusionary schools?

Posted by: Fred34 | March 30, 2010 2:13 PM | Report abuse

Why present charter schools as a pancea? Any study of the broad charter school movement cannot show that they are signficantly better than the existing system.

the problem with the entire movement for educational reform is that it is looking for easy structural solutions to an entirely complex and societal problem. Study after study has shown waht good teaching, administering and schooling looks like - and they show, collectivley that that there is no one answer - because education is a multi-directional art form with many dependencies. it is not all determined by the school, the system, the teacher, the community, the parents - etc. It is dependent on all of these.

Most importantly, we should refrain from blaming only the schools when we have so many other causes of educaitonal problems. The implication of this is that if we only fix the schools then all of our problems will be solved.

Posted by: MrCompGov | March 30, 2010 2:32 PM | Report abuse

Not an education expert, but I've been following this RTTT program with some interest. I'm as excited as Ezra is to see the administration sticking to its criteria for these awards. Even if only to show that they mean what they say.

As regards the Charter School debate, based on what I understood from Duncan's discussion with the governors about this issue, he views charter schools more like experimental laboratories. Places that have the flexibility to innovate and then export their innovations to the broader public school system. So--to my understanding--he views caps on Charter Schools as caps on innovation, which can be detrimental to the larger goal of the US public school system. I didn't interpret this to mean that he considers charters to be a panacea of any sort. (Of course, I could be completely wrong about this.)

I also don't think that anyone believes that fixing the schools will solve all of our problems. But we still need to give it a try. And RTTT appears, from a layman's perspective, to be trying to achieve both structural and cultural improvement simultaneously. We'll see...

Posted by: slag | March 30, 2010 2:57 PM | Report abuse

The charter school appeal is much as Slag notes: They're good venues for experimentation, without the possibly devastating effect vouchers would have on the public system. They've certainly not been a panacea so far, but they've been good enough to keep trying, and we do need to keep trying things.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | March 30, 2010 3:40 PM | Report abuse

I don't know that Charters are the be-all-end-all in the selection process. TN increased the number of Charters allowed, but still allows fewer than NC. TN was #2, NC was #14.

If I remember correctly, there were 500 points in the scoring, and the Charter category only made up 50 of them. There was a lot more going on here.

Posted by: J-NC | March 30, 2010 3:49 PM | Report abuse

Yes, all student loans will now be under the auspices of the federal government. The president cites cost savings by gettin the "middle men" out of the picture.

However, when politicians are in charge, they make political decisions and not necessarily good business decisions.

Once the pursestings are firmly in the grasp of this administration, the usual goals will be trotted out and the vehicle to be used will be the student loans.

Goals such as equal access. Your parents went to an Ivy League school so you may not be loaned money to go to a really good school. You may have to 'step down' as Mark Lloyd says so that someone else can 'step up'... all at the discretion of our overlords for social reasons.

More control means less liberty.

Posted by: WrongfulDeath | March 30, 2010 3:58 PM | Report abuse

Not everyone is happy about the award in Delaware. For several years a corporate-dominated coalition called Vision 2015 (includes Eli Broad, ex-honcho at the notorious AIG) has been determined to define reform in Delaware. They tried to get the state legislature to fund their scheme to the tune of $100 million, but failed. Now the Feds have ponied up to pay. To learn more about how folks feel about it in Delaware, see

Posted by: halrivers | March 30, 2010 4:35 PM | Report abuse

So, Klein, what minimum amount would you expect education scores in Tennessee and Delaware to improve by below which you call this stupid new dollar toss a failure?

Or is it just the fact that the dollars were tossed that is the socialist success?

Posted by: msoja | March 30, 2010 5:30 PM | Report abuse

According to reports, the two states selected were not first and second in results. What they both had was the blessing of the teachers unions. None of the "losers" had the teachers unions support. Seems the key test is political.

As usual, the priority in kids' education is neither kids nor education.

Posted by: buchmann | March 30, 2010 5:55 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure about Delaware, but it's going to be tricky in Tennessee. Standards for grading are changing, so grades are going to be going down a bit (although this should happen before any of the RTTT money is involved) across the board before they go up. Just because the system of calculation means that everything is going down a few points, for some strange reason.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | March 30, 2010 5:56 PM | Report abuse

Both PROJECT HEADSTART and the COMMUNITY ACTION PROGRAMS(anti-poverty) both set up alternative schools i.e. Job Corps. Both failed to reform the public schools and both largely failed to make a dent into the politics of the local school system.

Obama is, once again, reliving the Sixties anti-poverty program rhetoric about initiating change and reform outside of the public schools....and using ESEA monies to do it with.

Partisan politics will decide who gets what due to the internal partisan corruption and domination of state legislatures by hard pressed unions facing layoffs has already had Maine turn down the key reforms TENN. enacted...but money we'll see what happens.

Posted by: Common_Cents1 | March 30, 2010 5:57 PM | Report abuse

the problem with the entire movement for educational reform is that it is looking for easy structural solutions to an entirely complex and societal problem.

Exactly. Except, there's not going to be any sort of attempt to fix those large scale problems, not the least because the parties responsible - that is, the parents - will fight like demons to avoid any sort of accountability.

Instead, what will happen is what always happens: since public schools aren't allowed to be selective in their admissions, and since public schools can't expel unruly students, these two options will be snuck in the back door via charter schools. Same as it ever was.

Posted by: ScentOfViolets | March 30, 2010 9:15 PM | Report abuse

Look, when 60% of your students are scoring "Below Basic" on CAS let's not talk about "teaching to the test." That's pathetic. Teaching them anything would be a start.

My number one, very first test to see what is wrong with a student doing poorly in my class is to look at their homework. If it's seldom turned in, and poorly and incompletely done when it is, I stop right there and tell the student they need to be doing their homework, and if they're having problems with it, to come see me during my office hours.

I would wager that a goodly percentage of these poor students will fail such a basic test. And that's where the parents come in: it's their job to see that their kids do the assigned homework. Sadly, parents these days want mutually conflicting things: they don't want their kids to have to work too hard, but at the same time their bright young things have to get B's or A's, and they have to do well on standard college entrance exams such as the SAT. Of course, given that, who do they blame when this doesn't happen? The teachers. Did anyone expect otherwise?

Posted by: ScentOfViolets | March 30, 2010 9:21 PM | Report abuse

It is not amusing to continually read about how it is the schools' fault or the teachers' fault or the parents' fault that children are not succeeding in school.

We KNOW that children who enter school ready to learn are children whose mother received appropriate prenatal care, who has had enough of the right foods to eat, who has been read to 2-3 times per week for at least 15 minutes... who has adequate health, dental, and vision care... who have clothes and shoes and coats, who have books and toys and places where they can exercise their imagination, who have experienced varied and enriching environments before they ever entered school. We know that children who are not exposed to drugs and alcohol and poverty and hopelessness achieve better in school.

We KNOW how to help children enter school ready to learn. We just don't have the political will to get it done.

It really does take a community. Not a warehouse. Schools with thousands of students are challenged to create environments where not only the teaching staff, but the students are held accountable. Effective schools are places where every staff member knows every child.

We have to stop warehousing our children and expecting them to sprout wings and fly over all the obstacles in their way.

No one should expect a child of a school dropout to have any respect for school. We have to reach the parents AND the children. How do you expect a child to read well, when his parent can not and has no respect for those who can?

We have to stop thinking that education is something to occupy our children while we are doing something else until they are old enough to go to work.

Homeschooling works for some, but it isn't the solution when 65-70% of families have to have both parents working... when there ARE two parents.

As long as we continue to think of education as a problem that affects 5-18 year olds, we will fail to "fix the problem".

Communities have to stop playing the blame game and get on board with their local school. They need a lot of help and it might just be that you would be surprised at how much help just being there TO help can be. Get involved. Find out how your state funds education. Offer to purchase some supplies for a classroom. Become a mentor or a tutor for a child who needs some extra help. Volunteer some of your time and talents. Help do some fundraising for extracurricular programs... students exposed to regular art and music content score higher on standardized tests.

We KNOW what it takes for children to succeed in school... we just don't seem to be willing to DO IT.

Posted by: sandyd118 | March 31, 2010 12:41 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Klein and Duncan should try teaching at a typical underperforming middle or high school in Washington DC for a semester, not the AP classes, but classes where most of the students are not achieving near to grade level standards. This would give them a "real" education.

Maybe Duncan and Obama would scapegoat educators less and hold students, parents more accountable. Not going to happen.

Posted by: Aprogressiveindependent | March 31, 2010 2:40 AM | Report abuse

Let me guess. Lamar Alexander will "rip" Obama for this program and then look for the photo shoot to take credit, saying how important education is. Hyprocracy at its best will once again show it's ugly face with the Republicans

Posted by: pgmichigan | March 31, 2010 9:39 AM | Report abuse

It really does take a community. Not a warehouse. Schools with thousands of students are challenged to create environments where not only the teaching staff, but the students are held accountable. Effective schools are places where every staff member knows every child.

Oh, don't me wrong, I agree 100%. But the reality is that this just isn't going to happen, and that pressure will be applied where resistance to it is weakest. So you get the same old same old fixes: cherry picking and disciplinary measures gussied up and disguised as something else. Along, of course, with calls for "accountability" from the teachers and backed by administrators answering to school boards whose disposition is determined by parents who have absolutely zero intention of being held accountable for anything themselves.

That's depressing, but that's the way it is.

Posted by: ScentOfViolets | March 31, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

RTTT is NCLB with the addition of money being thrown at the problem - the part that was missing from NCLB. Arne Duncan is bringing to the nation what he brought to the Chicago schools. He was a political appointee of Mayor Daley, and is not an educator. He will bring about the establishment of more Charter schools, but he, and his program, will not correct the problems of our public schools. It will take a truly caring family, a truly caring community, a truly caring society and nation to heal the problems with our ailing public schools.

If our political leaders want to change the failure of our public schools, they should start by establishing preschools, particularly in areas of poverty, so that underprivileged children can have the opportunity to develop requisite skill for success in elementary school. By the time they start school in the present system they are behind, and they never catch up. This would also enable children who may have reading disabilities to be identified and to be more easily remediated. Again, by the time this problem is identified in our present system, it is often too late and these individuals never catch up. I could go on.

What is needed is more hope, inspiration, support, and respect, not top down regimentation, coercion, and fear. But until real and experienced educators can determine the most beneficial programs, instead of politicians, we are not going to solve the problems of our ailing schools.

Posted by: JTRap | March 31, 2010 4:32 PM | Report abuse

RTTT is a sickening sign of the current educational times. A program of bribery which forces educators to do things they don't believe in, because it's the only way to get decently funded these days - and this is being called reform? It's reshaping America, alright, but not into the kind of nation I want it to be. I certainly will think twice before I vote for B.O. again.

Posted by: mrichardson2 | April 1, 2010 10:38 PM | Report abuse

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