The White House's 'two big theories of action'
Most of the commentary on the 2012 budget is focusing on the headline numbers: How much it cuts, how much it spends, and where it leaves deficits. There's been less attention to the new ways the administration is proposing for how a lot of that money gets spent.
Think of social policy as having one of two goals: Either it's funding a particular program to do something specific, like lower teen pregnancy, or it's funding a broader effort to reform something diffuse, like the education system. The administration views these problems separately. "We have two big theories of action here," says Robert Gordon, executive associate director at the Office of Management and Budget. "In a program intervention, the big obstacle is getting people to use the right approach, based off the best evidence. If you think about systems, the big obstacle is often political -- you're dealing with a complicated space with multiple stakeholders where you have a common goal but there's a coordination problem."
For the program interventions, the administration sees the main problem as getting sclerotic bureaucracies to shift to interventions based on the best and newest evidence. So they're tying funding to evidence -- a practice that's been rarer than you might think. For the systemwide reforms, they see the main problem as getting past political obstruction and broad inertia, and so they're expanding the Race to the Top program -- which handed out money based on the pro-reform laws that states passed through their legislatures -- to new areas.
Saying that new programs -- and a lot of the money feeding old programs -- will be weaned off of so-called "formula" funding, where money is given out according to preset rules, and moved to various forms of competitive funding, where the money is given out based on how much high-quality evidence you can provide that your intervention works, seems like damning with faint praise. Isn't most policymaking based on evidence?
Well, no, says Ron Haskins, former senior adviser for welfare policy in the George W. Bush administration. "Research generally plays a very modest role," he sighs. But he brightens up when he talks about "the spectacular job" the Obama administration is doing changing this.
The Obama administration's favored funding structure involves a three-tiered test. The top tier is for programs that have tested themselves using a randomized control trial in multiple sites, or something close to it. That's the gold standard in evidence, and those programs get the most money. The second tier is for programs with preliminary evidence, and they can get some money. And then there are programs that can make a case for why they're worth trying, and they can get a bit of money -- enough, essentially, so they can develop evidence and come back to qualify for a higher tier. Program funding is being moved to this model across the government, in education and energy and transportation and more. "This is one of the few times I've regretted being a Republican," Haskins says happily. "I just think this is the exact right thing to do, and they’re being so thorough about it."
Then there's the systemic level. The model here is the Race to the Top program, which has been at the core of the administration's efforts in the education space. That initiative ran a competitive grant program in which states needed to submit a reform plan, then pass it through their state legislatures, before they could qualify for cash. The money, essentially, was used to buy votes for a broader reform vision.
When administration officials talk about Race to the Top, they get a little starry-eyed. "Widely viewed as leveraging more change than any other competitive grant program in history" is how it gets introduced in the budget. The great thing about the Race to the Top money, administration officials will tell you, is that it proved so highly "leveraged." Only 12 states actually got grants. But more than 40 states adopted a common set of K-12 standards. Dozens more lifted the caps on charter schools and agreed to more rigorous teacher evaluation programs. The money and the competition proved effective at breaking the political logjams that had frustrated reformers, giving them the momentum to pass their packages through state legislatures. And even if a state didn't end up getting the money, it still kept the reforms it had passed while trying to get the money.
It's no surprise that Race to the Top began in the education space, where political intransigence and interest groups are often considered the first-order obstacles to change. But now it's moving beyond education. There's a $200 million Race to the Top program "for communities to invest in electric vehicle infrastructure and remove regulatory barriers." There's a $32 billion Race to the Top program in the transportation space to "create incentives for States and localities to adopt critical reforms in a variety of areas, including safety, livability, and demand management." There a $120 million Race to the Top grant "that rewards States for tangible improvements in juvenile justice systems. There are new Race to the Tops for early-learning, higher education and job training. There are Race to the Tops everywhere.
I think there's a question as to how well the model will work in new spaces. The administration -- and the education-reform community more broadly -- was very clear on the political reforms it thought necessary to improve the schools. It's less clear what they want to see happen in "safety, livability, and demand management." But it's worth a try: The White House may not be able to overcome gridlock in Washington. But perhaps, with the help of a few billion dollars, they can do it in the states.
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