A big flop on Race to the Top

For those who may not believe in coincidence, consider: On Tuesday, Fordham released a brand-new study that found New Orleans to be the most reform-minded city in the country; Denver came in fourth. Also on Tuesday, the Department of Education shocked the known world by announcing that Louisiana and Colorado both came up short in Race to the Top, outdone by such reform stalwarts as Maryland (ha!) and Hawaii (guffaw!).

The full list of state winners also includes Florida, Georgia, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C. (And, to be fair, D.C. and NYC also fared extremely well in the Hess analysis, coming in second and third respectively.)

This is a disastrous outcome for the Administration. Support for competitive programs, even among reformers, is apt to plummet as it becomes clear that the vagaries of peer reviewers and the prowess of grant writers are what drive results in such competitions, not true policy change, political courage, leadership or public commitment to reform. The lofty rhetoric of the Race to the Top has turned to farce.

One may well feel sorry for Arne Duncan and his team. By all accounts, it appears that they simply funded states in the order of their ranking by peer reviewers. There were no shenanigans or political gerrymandering, as far as I can tell. (While the White House must surely be happy with the outcome vis-a-vis Ohio and Maryland, where Democratic governors face tough re-election campaigns, it couldn’t have been too pleased about Senator Michael Bennet’s Colorado.)

But this was a situation that called either for a better choice of peer reviewers or greater political courage—and the Obama team delivered neither. At the end of the day, Secretary Duncan could have funded Louisiana and Colorado regardless of their scores. He might even have nixed Maryland, which nobody in their right mind regards as an incubator of serious education reform. Yes, he would have taken much heat (probably even from me, it must be admitted) for mucking around with reviewer recommendations. But it would have been worth it, just to demonstrate that Race to the Top’s—and Duncan’s own—focus on results and reform was for real. Instead—were they, perhaps, rendered gun-shy by the Reading First imbroglio?—he and his team chose the path of least resistance.

This won’t help their effort on Capitol Hill to extend the Race to the Top in future years or to big cities. Or to extend the principle of competition rather than formula to more federal programs. Chances are that Congress—now unimpeded by reformers—will turn back toward business as usual, with formulas driving funds to every nook and cranny of the country, regardless of how deserving or open to change. And cynicism about the federal role as an agent of education reform will deepen. On second thought, that might be the silver lining of today’s cloud. 

This piece first appeared on Fordham’s blog Flypaper. Subscribe to Flypaper’s RSS feed here.

Photo by Steve Johnson.

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