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Race to the Top Education Grant Propels Reforms

Greg Toppo makes an excellent point. By Washington standards, it's not a lot of money. So why are educators allowing their principles and pedagogy to be sold so cheaply?

By Greg Toppo

It's relatively small by Washington standards, but the Obama administration's $4.35 billion carrot for schools is already leading states to adopt a handful of key reforms.

Tucked into the $110 billion federal stimulus slated for education, a comparatively tiny grant known as the Race to the Top requires that states that want the money must commit to closing historic achievement gaps and getting more kids into college ΓΆ€“ but they also must show that they're attending to a few nitty-gritty details that President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan believe are important, including:

- Tying teacher and principal pay ΓΆ€“ and school assignments ΓΆ€“ to student test scores.

- Adopting internationally benchmarked academic standards.

- Turning around their lowest-performing schools.

- Building long-term student tracking systems.

- Loosening legal caps on the number of charter schools that states allow each year.

On Wednesday, Obama plans to mark the first anniversary of his 2008 election with a speech at a middle school in Madison, Wis., where he'll talk about the Race to the Top. The first batch of money isn't scheduled to go out until January, but state legislatures over the past few months have been scrambling to rewrite laws governing these systems.

If distributed to each of the USA's schools, which educate an estimated 50 million students, it would equal only $87 more per student. But the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says 10 states already have moved to raise or get rid of caps on publicly funded but privately run charter schools. Four ΓΆ€“ Delaware, Illinois, Louisiana and Texas ΓΆ€“ have already raised or eliminated them.

And California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called a special legislative session last August to goose state lawmakers into repealing a law that prohibits districts from linking teacher pay to student test performance. He signed it into law last month.

Not bad for $87 per kid.

"We absolutely believe that the activity we're seeing ... is prompted by the Race to the Top competition," says Melody Barnes, Obama's domestic policy director.

She says Obama plans to detail "the really encouraging steps" that a handful of states have taken to be eligible for Race to the Top money.

Charles Barone of Democrats for Education Reform, a New York-based advocacy group, says money may not be the issue ΓΆ€“ there's a more important "prestige factor" at play, he says. "You want to be the state that competes successfully."

Rick Hess, an education policy analyst with the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, says many of the criteria, such as charter school expansion and teacher pay reform, are laudable. But he worries that Obama and Duncan are pushing ahead too quickly, forcing states to implement new rules "carelessly or without much conviction," that are bound to fail.

"We're institutionalizing impatience," he says. "There's not much room for thoughtful conversation."

He also says the Race to the Top suffers from the same over-prescriptiveness that plagued No Child Left Behind, the Bush administration's education reform law.

All the same, Barone says, many of Obama's proposed reforms are "low-hanging fruit ΓΆ€“ things that are no-brainers," so it's easy for governors to fight for changes.

"They don't want to be on the losing side of this," he says. "Everybody wants to be the education governor, but nobody had asked them to prove it in the past several years. This year the onus is back on them."

— Greg Toppo
USA Today


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