Future of Obama education program cloudy

Medill News ServiceSeptember 19, 2011 

WASHINGTON — Two years ago, Race to the Top, the Obama administration's signature education policy, was just a line in the massive federal stimulus bill. Now applications have been issued for the third round of the sweepstakes program, which has begun to establish itself as the nation's de facto model for how students should learn and teachers should teach.

But after a lengthy planning process in legislatures around the country, many states only now are implementing the changes that won them money in the program's first two rounds, and not everyone is happy with the results.

The program — in which states vie with one another for tens of millions of dollars in education grants — has faced criticism from teachers unions and state governments for its competitive nature and tight deadlines, as well as arguments that it amounts to federal interference in education policy.

One state, South Carolina, which was a finalist in the first two rounds of the program, decided in May that it no longer would participate because state education officials opposed a top-down approach to education from Washington.

Jay Ragley, the director for legislative and public affairs for state education superintendent Mick Zais, said that while state officials supported many of Race to the Top's goals, they'd prefer change to be initiated at the state level.

Zais' "reason for not participating was because there are strings attached to programs for federal money," Ragley said. "And you must continue funding them after they run out."

Ragley said officials didn't want to start new programs that they'd have to shut down if they lost funding down the road.

In July 2009, Congress created Race to the Top as a way to inspire states to propose education revisions with the promise of millions of dollars in prize money. Education Secretary Arne Duncan's program was meant to be a short-term boost of revenue, which was why the Obama administration included the money — $4.35 billion — as part of the $787 billion stimulus package known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Duncan argued that investing in education would stimulate the economy by promoting long-term productivity. However, it was a long-term concept tucked into a stimulus package that was expected to produce immediate results.

There were four basic ideas: better preparing students for college, creating measurements for student and teacher improvement, recruiting the most effective teachers and reforming underperforming schools.

"Not every state will win and not every school district will be happy with the results," Obama said at the time. "But America's children, America's economy and America itself will be better for it."

Forty states and the District of Columbia applied for grant money in the program's first phase. In March 2010, the administration announced the first two recipients: Tennessee, which won $500 million, and Delaware, which was granted $100 million, to carry out aggressive revisions over the next four years.

The two states just now are pushing past the planning stages and rolling out new programs. It's been more than a year since the announcement of a second group of winners, totaling another $3.3 billion in grants. And with the stimulus funds having been spent, there's no more money envisioned for the program.

Obama's $1.35 billion funding request for a third phase of the program must come out of the overall federal budget, an idea that's especially controversial as the country faces a fiscal crisis.

Experts say the concept of the Race to the Top has shifted from a competition with a limited supply of award money from the one-time stimulus bill to what the administration would like to become a standard line item in the federal budget.

"My personal feeling is that the premise behind it is good," said Betty Weller, the vice president of the Maryland State Education Association, who's helping to implement the $250 million grant that Maryland won as part of Race to the Top's second phase.

"Improving instruction and leadership in buildings; these are things that will help us raise the achievement of our kids."

Weller said it was too early to know whether Race to the Top would fare better than No Child Left Behind, the Bush administration's key education policy, which many education experts say failed to provide enough money and resources to back up its requirements.

"There were a lot of unintended consequences in No Child Left Behind," Waller said.

Officials from the states that won funding in the program's first two rounds cite strong involvement from local districts and teachers as the key to success. Diane Donohue, the president of the Delaware State Education Association, said educators long had sought this type of involvement in education.

"It's a huge step for education," she said. "We've always wanted people to listen to what we say. We're in the classroom all day with the students, and it's a huge beginning to start changing the culture around education and see educators involved instead of initiatives coming down from the top."

She acknowledged that Delaware's small size might contribute to relationships between educators and officials that are closer than those in larger states.

"People laugh when they hear that we sit down with our secretary of education, but when you can travel the whole state north to south in two hours, you're bound to run into people," she said.

Teachers' organizations from some winning states are concerned about provisions in the program that base as much as half of teachers' evaluations on student performance.

"A student's dog might have died, their grandma is sick, their parents had a fight, they don't feel well, they're hungry — those all impact how students perform in the classroom," Waller said. "Those are the kinds of things teachers can't control."

Teachers are also reluctant to implement such policies, which they say lack research to support them.

"Having to do teacher evaluations on underperforming schools and turning around those schools — a lot of that language was based on belief instead of strong research," said Randy Flora, the director of education policy and coalition relations for the Ohio Education Association.

Weller agreed.

"Ultimately, the goal is to raise student achievement to do what's best with kids, education and public schools," she said. "But if some of the programs aren't research-based, I liken it to building a plane while you're trying to fly it."

In the debt-ceiling debate aftermath and with the congressional "supercommittee" set to swoop in, some fear the program might disappear. Several teachers' organizations in states that won grants are worried that they'll start new programs they won't be able to pay for in the future.

"It would be horrible to lose the money," Donohue said. "Anytime you lose money when you're trying to do something new, (that) creates a negative impact and a domino effect, and it impacts more than just that one program."

(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.)

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