Obama's $4 billion is massive incentive for school reform

The president says schools that prioritize his agenda will get the cash. State and education officials are wary, but they need the money desperately.

Jim Young/Reuters
President Obama announces $4 billion in 'Race to the Top' education grants alongside Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Department of Education in Washington Friday.

The rush is on for $4.35 billion in “Race to the Top” grants, targeted to leverage historic reforms in US public schools.

“This is one of the largest investments in education reform in American history,” said President Obama at the US Department of Education on Friday. “And rather than divvying it up and handing it out, we are letting states and school districts compete for it.”

The high-stakes grants are targeted to reward states and school districts that are “ready to do things that work,” the president said. “That's how we can incentivize excellence and spur reform and launch a race to the top in America's public schools.”

It looks like a carrot, but with so many states and local school districts hard-hit by recession, education activists say that new federal windfall may feel like stick.

“No state official wants to leave this much money on the table,” says Michael Petrilli, an education official in the last Bush administration, now with the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in Washington.

For the past two months, Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been telling education groups that if they want to have an edge going into the competition for these grants, they must demonstrate four key reforms. These include:

• Reversing a pervasive dumbing down of academic standards and testing.

• Establishing better data on student achievement, including linking teacher evaluations and pay to student outcomes.

• Improving or replacing teachers who aren’t up to the job, especially in high-poverty schools and hard-to-staff subjects.

• Turning around failing schools, including replacing school staff and changing school culture.

“For the first time in history, we have the resources at the federal level to drive reform,” Secretary Duncan said as he released draft guidelines for the competition on Friday.

“We cannot continue to tinker in terrible schools where students fall further and further behind, year after year,” he added.

Most federal education dollars are doled out to states and local school districts by fixed formula. But the $4.35 billion in competitive grants announced today, along with some $6 billion provided in the Fiscal Year 2009 budget agreement, add up to an unprecedented $10 billion to be awarded at the discretion of the US Education Secretary.

Grants will be awarded on a competitive basis in two rounds. First-round losers can make “necessary changes” and reapply, Duncan said.

Education groups welcomed the new funding, but many took exception to the bigger federal footprint in local decisionmaking – and the advantage it gave to policies they may oppose.

In Philadelphia, the National Conference of State Legislatures today called on the federal government to respect state interests and “refrain from linking a state’s charter school laws with its eligibility for federal assistance.”

Teachers unions applauded the new funding, but said they want to weigh in on the details, especially the new incentive to link teacher evaluations to student performance.

But Obama was adamant: “Any state that makes it unlawful to link student progress to teacher evaluations will have to change its ways if it wants to compete for a grant,” President Obama said on Friday.

Anti-testing groups worry that the competition guidelines perpetuate an overemphasis on standardized tests.

Yet in a rare show of unanimity among education groups, there's no dispute that today's announcement breaks new ground in national education policy.

“Arne Duncan has an unparalleled opportunity to have an influence. No other Secretary of Education has ever had this much discretionary money available,” says Jack Jennings, founder and CEO of the Center on Education Policy in Washington.

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