This is the sixth in a series of special reports on the K-12 education implications of the federal government's economic stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
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The Obama administration's Race to the Top (RTT) competitive grant program has been heralded for revolutionizing the federal role in education and transforming state school reform efforts. This paper offers an initial analysis of the origins, evolution, and impact of RTT. In many ways, RTT is an attempt to circumvent the perceived failings of No Child Left Behind and in particular the law's reliance on coercive federal mandates and the compliance culture it fostered at the state level. RTT's competitive grant process relies on incentives instead of sanctions to drive state reform. The program is fundamentally about two things: creating political cover for state education reformers to innovate and helping states construct the administrative capacity to implement these innovations effectively.
RTT has had a significant impact on the national political discourse around education and pushed many states to propose or enact important policy changes. Despite its imperfections, RTT has clearly generated considerable momentum behind education reform in the United States and pressed states into very public deliberations over thorny education reforms that have long been resisted, such as changing teacher evaluation and tenure. By pushing these issues into the spotlight, RTT has spurred new conversations and stirred the political pot around education, helping forge new alliances and creating new opportunities for reformers in state legislatures. One notable example is teacher-quality reforms, which have been pushed by education leaders like former chancellor Michelle Rhee in Washington, D.C., Colorado state senator Mike Johnston, and Ohio's outgoing governor Ted Strickland. The long-term impact of a Democratic president confronting the unions about teacher accountability and school reform may prove to be one of the most important political legacies of RTT.
RTT has shifted the focus of federal education policy from the laggards to the leaders. This shift carries with it two challenges over the long haul: how to sustain the reform push in the winning states (the leaders), and how to disseminate and motivate reform among the losing states (the laggards). RTT's success in these areas will be constrained by two crucial factors that have remained largely unchanged in federal education policy: the politics of intergovernmental relations and the limited oversight and enforcement capacity of the U.S. Department of Education. We should thus remain realistic in our expectations about what RTT can accomplish; while the program's approach may be different from that of earlier federal education programs, many of the political and institutional obstacles to sustaining meaningful reform at the federal and state levels remain largely the same. RTT will struggle to surmount these obstacles in the short term, even as it hopes to transform them over the longer term.
RTT will not single-handedly solve the problems of American education, and some of its initial achievements may well be undone over time. Nonetheless, RTT's importance should not be understated. The program has outlined a promising new approach to federal education policy in the competitive grant program, and it has generated a substantial amount of state policy change in a short period of time, particularly for a program of its relatively small size. Perhaps most important, it has significantly influenced the intensity and character of school reform discourse across the country. As a result, regardless of whether RTT continues beyond 2010 or whether states fulfill the reform commitments in their applications, the program's legacy on both education politics and policy will likely be considerable.
Patrick McGuinn (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor in the departments of political science and education at Drew University.