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Fed’s $4 Billion Education Carrot May be Losing Its Appeal

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Fed’s $4 Billion Education Carrot May be Losing Its Appeal

By Linda Dobson

A few weeks ago, a dozen governors who were among the finalists competing to receive a piece of the Obama administration’s $4+ billion economic stimulus called Race to the Top grants for school systems had stars in their eyes.

Man_Stressed_Over_MoneyAfter just two states – Delaware and Tennessee – received only a fraction of the money as first-round grant winners, those who spent much money and time preparing their applications seem less enamored with racing toward the federal administration’s objectives such as charter schools, teacher pay based on students’ standardized tests scores, and more.

According to a story in the April 4, 2010 Washington Post called “States Skeptical About ‘Race to Top’ School Aid Contest” by Sam Dillon, “Administration officials say they consider last week’s outcome a splendid success…Mr. Duncan [U.S. Secretary of Education] retained $3.4 billion to dole out to up to 15 winning states in September, weeks before the midterm elections – a political bonus that officials insist is mere serendipity.” Serendipity. Is that what they’re calling it these days?

While this should explain why only two states “won” in the first round, it hasn’t left state representatives thinking that anything about last week’s announcement was a “splendid success.” First, there’s Colorado, where with hopes to win $377 million dashed to pieces, Governor Bill Ritter, Jr. now “says the scoring by anonymous judges seemed inscrutable, some Coloradans view the contest as federal intrusion, and the governor has not decided whether to reapply for the second round.” Colorado is joined by Arizona, California, Nebraska, South Carolina and South Dakota – at least.

Secretary Duncan also feels “the administration won victories months before the results were announced, when a dozen states rewrote education laws in ways the administration had recommended. Michigan, for instance, passed laws permitting state takeovers of failing schools and tying teach evaluations to students’ test scores.” Hooray for the federal government; woe to the children.

Governors and state administrators have another ax to grind in a “new rule” that caps the amount of money states may receive in subsequent application rounds. For example, South Carolina was after $300 million; now the best they can hope for is $175 million. Florida plans to reapply, “but because the state built its proposal around a $1.1 billion award and its new limit is $700 million,” they’ll have to rethink their plan. (I know I always hate it when I have to figure out how to get along with $300+ million less than I thought someone was going to throw at me.)

Frederick Hess, a director at the American Enterprise Institute, said that the changes would require years of work and that the administration would need broad cooperation from a majority of states.

“This administration has had billions in stimulus dollars to buy support,” Mr. Hess said. “After that money is spent, further success with reform will depend on good working relationships with states. That is why all this grumbling matters.”

The federal education carrot seems to be losing a lot of its appeal which may ultimately slow down the federal takeover of schools. Perhaps Governor Ritter said it best when he shared, “Many tiny school districts don’t like federal mandates. So even as I believe that school reform is important for our country, it’s also important that people in Washington understand that one size doesn’t fit all.”

States’ non-participation in future Race to the Top cash awards and its agenda could be a good way to start to get that important message across. How many states have strong enough leadership to do that? Only time will tell.

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