Amid much fanfare, the president last year launched the Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” (RTT). Funded with $4.35 billion in stimulus dollars, the competitive grant program urged states to comply with 19 federal priorities and dramatically expanded Uncle Sam’s role in school reform. And, as opposed to the first $100 billion in education stimulus spending, the president promised in the State of the Union that RTT would reflect a new sensibility: “Instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform.”
Our earnest secretary of education, former Chicago school superintendent Arne Duncan, repeatedly bragged last year how tough he would be. He promised, “It’s going to be a very, very high bar. People won’t believe it until we do it. Obviously, hold us accountable for sticking to that.” The rhetoric played well, with RTT garnering raves from David Brooks and the Wall Street Journal.
Well, Duncan had his first test last Thursday, when the first round of RTT finalists were announced. And Duncan failed in grand fashion. The contest was about as tough as winning a trophy in peewee soccer. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia were named finalists, out of 41 applicants.
In giving a finalist billet to more than a third of the applicants, Duncan disappointed even Democratic reformers. Old Clinton hand Andy Rotherham, a prominent education reformer who frequently rises to the administration’s defense, deemed it “sort of an ‘uh oh’” moment. He thought the inclusion of Ohio and New York was “not a great sign” and judged that the administration had honored other applicants, like Illinois and Colorado, that “were arguably bubble states at best.” Joe Williams, the New York–based executive director of Democrats for School Reform, described himself “baffled” by the Empire State’s inclusion.
The New York and Ohio cases pose particular problems in that neither is regarded as especially reform-minded but both have reportedly brought political muscle to bear on RTT. It was reported last fall that New York Sen. Chuck Schumer told constituents that they could relax, because he’d been assured that New York would be a finalist. And recently it was reported that Gov. Ted Strickland of Ohio, facing a fierce reelection contest in a key electoral state, was leaning on Rahm Emanuel to make sure Ohio scored some RTT swag.