State political circumstances play crucial role in Obama’s Race to the Top

On August 24, the Department of Education (ED) released the list of phase two winners in its Race to the Top (RTT) program. A study released Friday by the non-partisan think tank, American Enterprise Institute, however, says that in some cases, the winning states for rounds one and quite possibly two, made the cut for political reasons and not because they made strides in education reform.

Announced in January 2009, RTT is a $4.35 billion fund established in the Recovery Act is supposed to spur states and localities into reforming education systems. Winners would receive extra grant money from the Department of Education to fund the reforms.

But while many states met the challenge head on, some may have been intentionally kept out of the winners’ circle.

The 10 phase two winners include Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island,and Washington, D.C. Three states – Delaware, South Carolina, and Tennessee – made the cut in the first round, but somehow did not make it as finalists.

As the study points out, there is a strong correlation between states that won and states that are of great interest to the White House this election season. In other words, states with contested races that threaten Democrats got put at the top of the list regardless of any progress in their schools systems.

Consider the front-runner in round one – Delaware. The Senate seat left vacant by Vice President Joe Biden is up for grabs this coming November. And the Democrats want nothing more than to hold onto it.

Similar examples can be found among the round two winners as well.

In Hawaii, the race at stake is in the 1st Congressional District, where Republican incumbent Charles Djou is in a close race with Democrat Colleen Hanabusa. A July memo by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), in fact, highlighted the importance of this race saying that it is one of nine seats currently held by a Republican that can be turned blue in November. According to the memo, only four of those nine seats need to be won by a Democrat to keep Republicans from gaining the House.

Hawaii was not even a finalist in round one.

In Maryland, the race to watch is in the 1st District, where Democrat incumbent, Rep. Frank M. Kratovil Jr., is seen as one of the most vulnerable Democrats this election cycle. And in a state that voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2008, no less.

The Massachusetts governor’s race is also in a dead heat, with Democratic Governor Deval Patrick fighting to hold onto his job against challenger Charlie Baker. The latest Rasmussen poll had Patrick barely ahead, at 39 percent to Baker’s 34 percent.

Also being eyed by Democrats is the Senate race in Ohio. Incumbent Sen. George Voinovich is not running for reelection. A recent Rasmussen poll had the Democratic candidate, Lee Fisher trailing with 39 percent to Republican Rob Portman’s 44 percent.

The list goes on. It is no coincidence either, according to AEI’s new study. The author, distinguished doctoral fellow of education policy at the University of Arkansas, Daniel Bowen, conducted an independent study of the states that entered RTT, based on their sores from round one and the political circumstances.

Bowen found that it’s quite possible political interests influenced RTT winners. Not only that, but in some cases, the status of a state’s Congressional and gubernatorial races accounted for a 77 point increase in final scores (out of 500).

In Washington, D.C.’s case, for example, those 77 points were enough to move it from its position as dead last in round one, to first place in round two.

Also noteworthy is what the study found concerning South Carolina and Florida. “Based on the data from these independent evaluations and the RTT weights, South Carolina and Florida actually finish first and second, respectively, while round-one winners Delaware and Tennessee finish eighth and fourth, respectively,” says the study.

Indeed, a finish at the top for South Carolina was expected by state officials. “It’s disappointing and surprising,” said Jim Rex, State Superintendent of Education said in a press release following ED’s announcement.

“We placed sixth in Round 1 and significantly improved our proposal for Round 2,” he said. “National education experts who handicapped the competition based on Round 1 scores and reviews of Round 2 applications seemed to think South Carolina was a lock to win.”

Bowen, who used to be a teacher himself, told The Daily Caller he genuinely likes the idea of Race to the Top, but was concerned about its objectivity.

“I wanted to look at potential explanations as to how some of the scores were brought about,” Bowen said. “I found that subjectiveness played a big factor, which undermines the entire program.”

“It could possibly be a disincentive from states pursuing reforms,” Bowen told TheDC. “South Carolina has done some pretty incredible things the last few years and essentially, they fell short for things out of their control. South Carolina can’t manufacture a more competitive election.”

“It should be extremely upsetting,” he added.

Bowen also pointed out that the most important thing to take away from the study is that there were outside factors, other than education reform, that affected which states won President Obama’s race to the top.