In late July the Department of Education (ED) released the draft priorities for the Race to the Top grant funds for public comment. The document outlined 19 criteria on which states' applications will be judged, including the existence of charter school caps, laws preventing the use of student achievement data to determine teacher compensation, and approved alternative pathways to teacher certification. As of August 28th, ED received over 1,100 comments, with many stakeholder groups voicing concern that the criteria were overly prescribed and stringent, requiring states to improve public education through specific channels like performance pay and charter schools. According to these groups and individuals, this is in direct contradiction with the administration's previous promise to focus on goals for educational improvement rather than the methods by which those goals are achieved. But the unique structure and competition involved in the Race to the Top grants justifies the priority document's specificity.
Indeed, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has stated that he believes the federal role in education specific on the outcomes of educational reform (like rigorous national standards) but allow states and localities the freedom to craft how their students achieve these outcomes. However, these comments were made with respect to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, not Race to the Top.
Key differences between the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and the Race to the Top grant program justify the administration's seemingly disparate approach. The primary funding source in ESEA, Title I, provides more than $14 billion annually to school districts across the country to provide additional services for disadvantaged students. These funds are distributed via four set funding formulas and any district with a sizeable low-income population is eligible. In return, school districts receiving funds under Title I must demonstrate predetermined "Adequate Yearly Progress" on state academic achievement goals.
In contrast, Race to the Top is a one-time $4.35 billion competitive grant program that aims to incent states to implement proven effective and well-designed reform activities to dramatically improve student achievement. The funding is above and beyond the federal government's typical contribution to public education and the receipt of other federal funds is in no way contingent on Race to the Top participation. Only a select few states are expected to receive funds through a rigorous grant application process and the distribution of funds will be based on proposed need rather than formula. Recipient states must report their progress on academic improvement throughout the duration of the program.
Given the isolated and competitive nature of Race to the Top, it is well within Secretary Duncan's right to prescribe the methods by which recipient states must use the funds. Much like a philanthropic organization identifies a set of goals or priorities for its grantees and awards funds accordingly, the Department of Education can select key criteria on which to judge states.
In the end, if the methods and interventions favored in the priorities prove to be ineffective, Race to the Top will become no more than a blip in the rocky education reform landscape. But until we can draw any definitive conclusion, Race to the Top outlines a series of promising investments in education and $4.35 billion with which to implement and test them. If not now, when?