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Schools sprinting to win Obama's Race to the Top billions

In speech Wednesday, Obama touts his $4.35 billion bid to reshape education in America. Schools nationwide are eager to compete for Race to the Top funds.

By Staff writer / November 4, 2009

President Barack Obama speaks about education at the Wright Middle School in Madison, Wisconsin, Wednesday.

Larry Downing/Reuters

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President Obama touted Race to the Top to the nation in a speech in Madison, Wis., Wednesday. But schools already know it well.

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Mr. Obama's $4.35 billion in Race to the Top funds have already spurred significant education reform in a number of states – even though the final guidelines for the program haven’t yet been announced, no states have yet applied, and the first grants won’t be made until at least April.

The program offers competitive grants to states that have policies aligned with certain federal priorities. These priorities include a willingness to evaluate teachers using student achievement, an openness to charter schools, and a commitment to building long-term data systems to track student performance.

Now, numerous states are revisiting laws that would disqualify them from the grants or make their applications less attractive.

“The administration has done a good job of having a lot of states make a long-odds bet that they’re going to win Race to the Top funds, so they’ve shaped their behavior a lot in advance of a single dollar being awarded,” says Russ Whitehurst, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Most of what the administration is going to get [in terms of reform] it will get before the competition is actually completed.”

Changes coming

Obama highlighted these changes Wednesday.

• Some states, including California, Indiana, and Wisconsin are taking steps to remove “firewall” laws that prohibit student achievement from being used to grade teacher performance.

• Four states – Illinois, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Delaware – have raised or lifted their caps on the number of charter schools they permit, and at least seven more are working to do so.

• Some of the 11 states that don’t yet allow charter schools are considering proposals to do so.

“We’re saying, if you’re committed to real change in the way you educate your kids; if you’re willing to hold yourselves more accountable; if you develop a strong plan to improve the quality of education in your state, we’ll offer you a grant to help make that plan a reality,” Obama said in his remarks.

A competition for prestige

In federal terms, the $4 billion in Race to the Top funds is relatively small – especially compared with the other $95 billion for education, also included in the stimulus package, which went to more traditional expenditures like saving teacher jobs.