The 'Breathtaking' Race That's Just Begun

December 23, 2009

As we prepare to enter a new year that may or may not see significant reform over federal education policy, this much is clear: there will continue to be plenty of action in the states.

The impetus for that action has been the perfect storm created by plummeting state revenues due to the economic downturn in combination with an innovative federal stimulus proposal, the Race to the Top Fund (RTTT).

I wrote in July about how the fund was producing promising state level policy changes in response to the four criteria that states need to satisfy in order to be eligible for RTTT funding.

That promising start has turned into a "breathtaking impact" according to Joe Williams, the president of Democrats for Education Reform. A recent Education Week article describes the dizzying array of states that have made substantial policy changes to allow charter schools, enable student achievement data to be tied to teacher pay, and to enact new school turnaround plans.

If $4 billion in one-time competitive grant funding by the feds can lead to such wholesale change on issues that recalcitrant stakeholders have long fought, one has to wonder whether the Department of Education could do more with the rest of its nearly $50 billion in outlays. Perhaps RTTT has demonstrated that the recipe for meaningful school reform is for the federal government to provide cash and political cover to states to do the heavy lifting themselves. One major reform that could get accomplished in the future through a similar formula: enactment of national standards.

Yet if the RTTT becomes a victim of its own success, there is cause for concern. The $4 billion slated to be given out can only be sliced up in so many pieces. What if so many states have enacted policy changes to qualify that there is a shortage of grant money to reward deserving actors? Will the backlash of denied RTTT grant applications lead state lawmakers to backslide on their earlier changes? Only time will tell.


Aaron Tang is the co-director of Our Education, a non-profit organization working to build a national youth movement for quality education. He also teaches 8th grade history in Saint Louis, MO.


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