|There’s a pot of cash and the states can come and get it – if they follow the desired performance standards. . . . In the case of Race to the Top, “the very sweet carrot,” as Posner puts it, has created real momentum for reform at the state level.|
Around 1:00 P.M. today, the Department of Education announced that 15 states and the District of Columbia have been selected as finalists for the first installment of “Race to the Top,” grants. This much-discussed element of the stimulus was designed to spur innovation and performance improvement in state education systems. The finalists were picked out of 41 applicants. Those that were turned away – as well as new entrants — will have an opportunity to try again in the second round.
The finalists: Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee and the District of Columbia.
The importance of Race to the Top goes a lot deeper than this set of grants. The Government Accountability Office and others who focus on performance have long been looking at ways that grants can be more performance oriented. [See the September, 2006 GAO report on “Enhancing Performance Accountability” in grant management.]
If Race to the Top is successful, it may help to usher in a new era in which competitive selection is used by the federal government in a way that could motivate states, counties or cities to focus more closely on improvements in performance outcomes.
The federal grants were scored based on 30 selection criteria. States moved forward on a number of fronts over the last year in order to make themselves more attractive candidates. According to an early January Education Week article about Race to the Top inspired reforms, the application criteria encouraged Alabama Governor Bob Riley to call for legislative action to permit charter schools. A number of other states, similarly, changed laws that limited charters.
One of the key requirements for applicants is the ability to link student achievement data to teacher evaluation. That led governors in Tennessee and Maine to push for legislative measures that would facilitate that connection. Last October, California’s Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger worked with the legislature to remove a data firewall that prohibited the use of test scores to evaluate teachers. That barrier “would have put the state out of the running for the Race to the Top,” wrote Erik Robelen in Education Week.
We talked with ever-helpful Paul Posner (left) about this a few days ago. Now director of the Masters in Public Administration program at George Mason University, Posner had a long and distinguished career at the Government Accountability Office, which he left in 2005. He sees Race to the Top as a departure from a more punitive compliance-oriented federal approach that sparked tremendous state resistance to both the No Child Left Behind and Real ID programs. In contrast, Race to the Top didn’t impose rules or standards on states, he says, but harked back to methods of the Great Society and New Deal, using cooperative federalism and relying on the “catalytic role that grants can play.”
The idea is that there’s a pot of cash and the states can come and get it – if they follow the desired performance standards. If you don’t want the money, you don’t have to play. In the case of Race to the Top, “the very sweet carrot,” as Posner puts it, has created real momentum for reform at the state level.
“The whole Recovery Act has regenerated interest in federal grants as a tool to promote new national policies. Race to the Top is a pull rather than a push. It has the potential to change priorities and standards over time.”