Politics & Policy

Republicans for Education Reform

The president and his education secretary at Wright Middle School in Madison, Wis., November 4, 2009
Race to the Top deserves some credit, but GOP victories deserve more.

The “Race to the Top” education initiative is one of President Obama’s most vaunted domestic-policy successes. The name itself connotes progress, forward movement, even competition. And there’s plenty of substance for the president to brag about: Forty-six states and the District of Columbia signed on to rigorous common standards; dozens of states got serious about teacher evaluations; key jurisdictions removed caps on charter-school expansion. This is what New Yorker contributor Steven Brill called “a sweeping overhaul” of the system.

With the Department of Education proposing a new $5 billion Race to the Top–style competitive grant program aimed at teacher policy, however, it’s worth taking a closer look at Race to the Top’s results. When you do, the scorecard changes considerably.

#ad#Ponder: Did the 2009–10 period, in which states were competing for Race to the Top funds, see the most reforms ever enacted? No. That distinction belongs to 2011, after the 2010 midterm elections swept historic Republican majorities into office in state after state.

Start with teacher evaluations. In 2009, no state specified ineffectiveness as grounds for the dismissal of a teacher (incredible but true!). By 2010 — in part because of Race to the Top — four states did (Colorado, New York, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island). But in 2011 — after the main Race to the Top competition was long past — eleven states joined the club (Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia, and Wyoming).

Or take “last in, first out” policies — i.e., basing layoffs on seniority rather than effectiveness. In 2009, only Arizona prohibited school districts from basing teacher layoffs on seniority. Colorado and Oklahoma followed suit in 2010. And then, in 2011, the issue really took off, with seven more states jumping on board, most of them Republican strongholds: Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Michigan, Nevada, Tennessee, and Utah.

And of course, 2011 was also the “year of school choice,” with seven states enacting new voucher or tax-credit programs (Arizona, Colorado, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin) — versus just two each in 2009 and 2010.

Race to the Top wasn’t meant just to catalyze legislative changes. Winning states made bold promises about implementing the reforms they’d enacted, and Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, issued stern statements about their intention to pull dollars away from jurisdictions that fell short. How has that effort fared?

In short: not so well. Eleven states and the District of Columbia won first-round grants of up to $700 million from the $4 billion Race to the Top pot in 2010, promising to deliver a range of ambitious programs and results. A little more than a year later, every one of those grantees has amended its plans at least once, with the Department of Education approving a grand total of 47 amendments to date. Maryland asked for another year to finish its teacher-evaluation system, while North Carolina opted for a more modest teacher-retention bonus program. Time and again goals have been lowered and timelines extended. When in late 2011, in response to Hawaii’s stalling, Duncan finally threatened to cut off the Aloha State’s funding, it marked a sharp and belated shift from the dozens of accommodating letters of approval his department had sent to states wavering on their commitments.

Scaled-back ambitions are only half the problem: Many states seem to have barely started putting their plans in motion. As of May 2011, a year after the first Race to the Top awards, just over $80 million of the $4 billion in funding had actually been spent. While it’s at least reassuring that states haven’t been burning through the money, the urgency of the “Race” petered out once the awards were made. With the latest round of grants awarded with little fanfare, the Obama administration’s signature effort is losing steam.

So the Race to the Top was good for education reform. But the 2010 election, it turns out, was much, much better.

— Michael J. Petrilli and Tyson Eberhardt are executive vice president and research fellow, respectively, of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education-policy think tank. This article is drawn from a recent Education Next feature, “Obama’s Education Record.”

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