Rethinking Race to the Top

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It’s been a week since the Education Department announced the winners of Race to the Top’s first round. And in that week, there’s been much speculation over why these two states, Delaware and Tennessee, overcame the competition. This federal competitive grant program was part of the stimulus package, and bestowed upon the ED $4.3 billion to award to states for exemplary school reform initiatives. Delaware came away with $100 million and Tennessee, $500 million. States were graded on a 500-point scale.

We should certainly applaud that the Department maintained its promised high standards. There was some doubt when the finalist list, announced a few weeks ago, was a whopping sixteen deep–over a third of the states that applied (forty plus the District of Columbia). It didn’t help that there were a few states on the list whose scant legacy of bold reform and/or weak applications made them unlikely picks—Pennsylvania, for example, or Ohio.

But comparing the applications of those losing 14 to the two winners is informative. So what set Delaware and Tennessee apart? They certainly had strong applications, though arguably not the strongest in every area. States’ proposals were graded on a point scale—so many points for lifting charter school caps, improving and expanding student data systems, etc. But neither Delaware nor Tennessee has a particularly strong charter school law, for example.

But points were also awarded for teachers’ union and local district “buy-in.” Delaware and Tennessee did particularly well in this area, with 100 percent and 93 percent sign-on from various stakeholders, respectively. Other states with strong applications, such as Louisiana and Florida, did not garner much “buy-in” at all. Taking a hard line with the unions from the presidential bully pulpit is a different kettle of fish from penalizing them when a large chunk of change is at stake. But union buy-in wasn’t everything. There were also a number of states with pretty good buy-in, but only so-so, or even terrible, applications (Ohio and Kentucky, for example); these states didn’t win.

It’s also worth noting that though the 500-scale point system tried to keep the competition numerical and fair, there was certainly ample discretion when it came to grading the applications. In fact, there was some wide variation in how various judges responded to the same application. Stephen Sawchuck and Michele McNeil of Education Week recalculated the final marks for each finalist by removing the outliers—the highest and lowest scores for each state–from various applications. Though Delaware and Tennessee still won, there was movement elsewhere in the final list: For example, Louisiana would have come in sixth, instead of eleventh, and Georgia would have finished in seventh place, not third.

The applications were reviewed by a panel of judges, the identities of whom were kept (and are still) secret. So we don’t know who they are or what kind of background they brought to the grading table, but we do know a few things about them from their comments on the grading documents that went back to states. We know that some judges compared the charter portion of states’ applications to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ model charter law, a rigorous and appropriate metric; some judges also used the Data Quality Campaign’s “10 Essential Elements” of excellent data systems, another worthwhile comparative tool, to grade the student data and information portion. But we also know that for the most part, they thought buy-in was pretty darn important. They brought it up a lot, and they dinged states that were missing it.

That leads us to RTTT round two. (Applications are due in June, and awards will be made in September.) Since just two states won this time around, and only took home a combined $600 million, there’s over $3 billion left. The Department has already announced that as many as fifteen states could win in the second round.

There is something to be said for having district and union buy-in. It’s much easier to enact reform when the parties who must carry out the changes are on board with them. But it also means that those changes are necessarily less bold and less innovative. Compromise tends to water down the best of intentions. It is also very unlikely, as Bellwether Partners co-founder and partner Andrew Rotherham has pointed out on his blog Eduwonk, that unions will be incentivized to “play ball” on the next round of RTTT applications. Unions are incentivized from the inside, he argues. In other words, they have the primary goal of perpetuating themselves; supporting initiatives that might decrease their political power or cost them members, and their membership dues, is just not realistic.

The bottom line is this: The chances that a whopping 15 states will submit strong, bold, innovative applications and garner significant buy-in from unions and districts are slim to none.

So we’re left with two options. The Department can either lower the “buy-in” bar—reward states with promising plans that might not have the support of unions and districts—or it can lower the reform bar—dole out dollars for superficial changes. We can only hope it’s the former.

Stafford Palmieri is Associate Editor and Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank dedicated to education policy reform. In that capacity, she manages and edits the Institute’s weekly publication, The Education Gadfly; she also contributes regularly to Fordham’s blog, Flypaper, and podcast, The Education Gadfly Show. Stafford graduated from Yale in 2008.