Race to the Top, a $4 billion competitive grant program created by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 to encourage states to undertake systemic education reform, has been the topic of much celebration—and scrutiny. At first, many heralded the program as one of the most effective school reform efforts ever passed by Congress. After the program was enacted, states legislatures made a number of historic changes to education policies to qualify for the funds. Now, many stakeholders think the program represents excessive federal meddling in education that will likely waste billions of dollars. Until now, it’s been difficult to assess the progress of the 12 states that won Race to the Top (RttT) grants. However, the Government Accountability Office recently released a report that provides an important look into what states are doing with their funds.
In the past, Ed Money Watch has used data on how states have drawn down funds to assess progress on various programs including RttT. The GAO report does the same but is able to examine draw-downs based on the amount each state budgeted to spend in the first year of its RttT grant.
GAO finds that most states had barely scratched the surface of their year-1 funds as of June 3rd 2011. Delaware and Tennessee, the two Phase One winners, have drawn down 36 and 50 percent, respectively since they received their awards in March of 2010. These states have had access to the funds for nearly a year, giving them quite a head start. Of the 10 states in Phase Two, however, only four have drawn down more than 10 percent of their year 1 funds since August of 2010 – the District of Columbia, Florida, Massachusetts, and North Carolina.
The GAO finds many reasons for this slow rate of spending. Primarily, many states have found that their original timelines were “overly optimistic” and have had to rework the planned roll out of different efforts. Similarly, some states have had to shift their budgets to accommodate unanticipated salary requirements for the employees they need to carry out their proposals. Other states have had trouble awarding contracts for work associated with their RttT grant proposals because crafting the necessary Request for Proposals documents has proven cumbersome. Every time a state changes its budget or timeline, the Department of Education must review and approve the change. This process is also taking longer than officials anticipated, perhaps due to the higher than expected number of changes states have submitted.
The GAO report also provides details on what sorts of activities states are spending their grants on as dictated by their grant proposals. Of the $4 billion awarded, half will support state activities (as opposed to school district activities, which are outside the scope of the report) under the four areas for reform outlined in the program. States will spend 33 percent ($654.1 million) of these funds on developing effective teachers and leaders. These activities can include professional development, new evaluation systems, or training teachers to incorporate data into instruction.
States will spend 24 percent ($478.5 million) on improving struggling schools. Many states are using these funds to create state-operated school districts that will absorb each state’s lowest performing schools and oversee their improvement. These districts will have more flexibility and autonomy in addition to extra resources.
States will spend 18 percent ($353.4 million) to expand student data systems, 16 percent ($312.5 million) to enhance standards and assessments, and 10 percent ($193.9 million) on other activities like support for charter schools.
Ultimately, the GAO concludes that while states have been able to adjust their timelines and budgets in response to challenges, these short-term delays may lead to larger problems. The agency says that the Department of Education should do more to ensure that states meet their deadlines and work harder to approve changes quickly. Additionally, the GAO encourages the Department of Education to increase opportunities for grantees to share promising practices as they implement their grant activities.
This GAO report is likely the first in a series of deep dives focusing on states’ RttT efforts, including a required Department of Education impact evaluation study. Until these reports are available, this GAO report provides some of the most in-depth information available on what states are actually doing with their RttT funds. Based on the evidence available, it is still too early to declare RttT a success or a failure. However, it is clear that the program is already facing roadblocks in implementation. Hopefully this information, coupled with on-going tracking of implementation challenges will inform future iterations of RttT including the upcoming Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant competition.