Media inquiries: Véronique Rodman
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: March 25, 2010
On March 4, the Department of Education announced first-round finalists in the Race to the Top (RTT) competition--the $4.35 billion federal program intended to spur and support groundbreaking state-level reforms. Despite promises to set a "very, very high bar," Secretary Arne Duncan selected sixteen states as finalists--more than one-third of applicants. This is one of many occurrences that have raised concerns about the ultimate impact of this vaunted program.
Yet, RTT is still being hailed as an unmitigated success, and many are celebrating its ostensibly revolutionary influence. In addition, the administration recently asked Congress for an additional $1.35 billion for a new Race to the Top program and has based its 2011 budget and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization framework on the program's basic features.
In his latest AEI Education Stimulus Watch (ESW) report, former deputy assistant secretary of education Andy Smarick notes that RTT's success is premature and drastically inflated. Using numerous examples, particularly at the state and local level, Smarick chronicles and analyzes the program's many obstacles and weaknesses. He finds that the application itself has shortcomings. Some states, for example, may be applying for the funds, not out of a belief in education reform but because of budgetary shortfalls. Only a limited number of states have made substantial policy changes, and the caliber of many state proposals has been weak (even among finalists). In addition, there often exists strong political opposition to the program and major implementation challenges at the state level.
"Smarick continues his invaluable and eagle-eyed coverage of education stimulus money, slicing through the hyperbole and posturing to explain the significance of these dollars for school improvement," says AEI's director of education policy studies Frederick M. Hess. "Unafraid to challenge conventional wisdom or wade into the weeds, Smarick provides an unrivaled analysis of the Obama administration's signature Race to the Top education initiative."
Though the first-round selection process is nearing completion, Smarick offers four corrective courses of action:
- First, program cheerleaders should temper their predictions and observers should ratchet down their expectations.
- Second, policymakers should halt efforts to expand funding until more is known about the existing program's implementation and consequences.
- Third, the Department of Education must understand the limitations of what it can control (for example, how closely it is able to investigate the promises made in state applications and how it can make sure that states execute their proposed plans).
- Finally, unless the department is convinced that a state application is perfect, every single submission should be returned to sender with a detailed list of needed improvements. The second round should be the ultimate contest where all interested states fight to win a share of the funding in a one-time-only competition.
"Too many observers have confused the Race to the Top's potential with its success. The former is unarguable, but the latter is still very much in doubt," says Smarick. "The number and seriousness of challenges have unfortunately been unrecognized, ignored, or downplayed. The full story of the Race to the Top is more complicated and less exhilarating than current conventional wisdom."
In addition to the quarterly ESW reports, Smarick tracks education stimulus spending on The American's Enterprise Blog at http://blog.american.com. Please contact Jenna Schuette at firstname.lastname@example.org if you wish to be added to the ESW mailing list.
Andy Smarick is an adjunct fellow at AEI and a distinguished visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. From 2008 to 2009, he was deputy assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development at the U.S. Department of Education. Smarick also served on the White House's domestic policy council from 2007 to 2008, working primarily on K-12 and higher education issues. He is currently working on a book about rebuilding America's urban public school systems.