What is Race to the Top?
On July 24, 2009, President Obama and the U.S. Department of Education announced the beginning of the Race to the Top Fund competitive grant program. The program is meant to challenge state education authorities to enact “ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing coherent, compelling, and comprehensive education reform” (according to www2.ed.gov).
The four major goals of the program are outlined at Race to the Top:
- Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to compete in the global economy.
- Building data systems that measure student success and showing teachers and principals how to improve instruction.
- Recruiting, developing, rewarding and retaining effective teachers and principals.
- Turning around the lowest-performing schools.
The program requires interested governors and education departments to submit applications outlining their goals and plans. All 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico were eligible and invited to apply. The only major restriction on the allocation of awarded funds was that 50% be sub-granted to participating local education authorities according to their relative shares of funding under the ESEA Title I, Part A program for the most recent year.
The program accepted applications from any state seeking a portion of the $4 billion allotment, and that initial fund was to be spent on two phases of competition and grant awards. These grants proved a tempting proposition for even skeptical state governments at a time of national education funding crisis.
In the beginning of phase one, education departments were encouraged to submit letters of intent to apply. Forty states submitted letters. To be eligible for grant awards, governors and education departments had to meet two prerequisites:
- The state’s applications for funding under Phase 1 and Phase 2 of the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (Stabilization) program must be approved by the department prior to the state being awarded a Race to the Top grant.
- At the time the state submitted its application, there could not be any legal, statutory or regulatory barriers at the state level to linking data on student achievement (as defined in the NFP) or student growth (as defined in the NFP) to teachers and principals for the purposes of teacher and principal evaluation.
This second requirement drew the most objections from teachers’ unions — they felt that linking education professionals’ salaries to student test scores was an unreliable and unproven form of evaluation. However, the “barriers” mentioned in the second requirement refer only to government statutes and regulations, ignoring any collective bargaining agreements at the local education authority level. The program’s suggested budget ranges for each state, but did not require conformity to those ranges in a state’s application.
Ultimately, 41 agencies applied for grants in phase one. Panels of five peer reviewers, carefully chosen and extensively trained by the Department of Education, reviewed each of the applications and 16 finalists were chosen. Two of those finalists, Tennessee and Delaware, received grants. Award letters and final budget breakdowns for all winners of the first two phases are available at www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/awards.html
In the second phase, 35 states and the District of Columbia applied for the remaining $3.4 billion in grants with the further requirement of remaining within the proportionate budget ranges suggested in phase one, as outlined at www2.ed.gov/programs/racetothetop/budget-guidance.pdf. Eighteen state education authorities plus the District of Columbia were announced as finalists and 10 received grants.
Satisfied with the results, President Obama has allocated $1.3 billion for a third phase, in which only finalists from phase two who did not receive grants will be eligible to apply.
The general result of the program thus far have been the formation of a coalition of governors and state education agencies, all adopting common education standards as well as several reform measures embraced by many states. To become eligible for grants, states must switch to value-based performance measures for education professionals and lift state caps on the density of charter schools.
Though some local education authorities and unions still oppose these changes, many have embraced the president’s goals. Some major national education foundations have opposed the program, while others have refused to take a stance either way.