Largest ED Discretionary Program in History?

This afternoon, the U.S. Department of Education hosted a webinar as follow-up to last Friday’s festivities on Race to the Top, the Innovation Fund, and the host of other additional funding programs made possible through a generous grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  The call served as a recap of the paperwork released on Friday, emphasizing the need for partnership, the importance of innovation, and the dollars and timelines associated with both.

As to be expected, individuals and organizations were already trying to see where they fit and what opportunities would be available specifically to them.  What about really small LEAs?  Does my planned charter school qualify?  Is there money for wind power in RTT? (The third question was indeed a serious one.)
A few interesting points came out of the responses.  For now, ED says it does not intend to eliminate SES (or at least replace it with ARRA funds).  We’ve been hearing for nearly a year now that SES may be eliminated as part of ESEA reauthorization, but if that’s the plan over on Maryland Avenue, they played it close to the vest today.
We also heard Deputy ED Secretary Tony Miller endorse extended day and extended school year programs.  When asked if RTT funds could be used for extended-day efforts, Miller can an enthusiastic affirmative, and even pointed to statewide efforts in Massachusetts as example of how state RTT dollars could be used effectively.
But I was most intrigued by the answer to a question regarding the timelines for programs and how long each stream of funding would last.  When the discussion turned to RTT, Miller and company noted that Race to the Top funding was operating under a four-year plan.  So $4.5 billion, available to states over four years.  That comes out to $1.125 billion a year to me (although I learned my math before core standards were developed).
For some time, we have been hearing that Race to the Top was the single largest education discretionary spending program in the history of the United States.  Friday, officials and dignitaries discussed all of the many uses for RTT, including STEM, alternative certification, charter schools, and the like (windmills did not make the cut).  That’s a lot of potential silos being funded with the RTT stream of dollars.  Clearly, ED has not indicated how many states will receive RTT funds.  If it is six to eight states, as many expect, that is a huge boon to reform efforts in those states.  If most states get the dollars, as may be politically expedient, that check is looking a little smaller than the Publishers Clearinghouse checks so many are now expecting.
But this afternoon’s discussion has deal ole Eduflack thinking.  Is Race to the Top really the single largest education discretionary program in the history of man?  As I remember it, in 2002, Reading First became law.  As it was originally written, it was a 5-year, $6 billion program.  Yes, all 50 states were expected to receive it, but the plan was approximately $1.2 billion a year for one single stream of educational improvement — reading instruction.  Had the law been maximized, up to 25 percent of that was to go to high-quality professional development for teachers (so nearly $1.5 billion for teacher training and supports).  
Why do I raise the RF issue now?  In continued reading of RTT, the draft language seems to be all things to all people.  It is designed as a consensus program so that each person along the way can hang their pet program or favorite issue on the reform tree.  Governor gets his issue.  State superintendent gets his.  State board of education gets its favorite.  Even the head of the state teachers union (if applicable) gets the final OK, meaning they get some quid for their pro quo.  At the end of the day, the applications are likely going to be a patchwork of different things intended to improve in some places, reward in others, and placate in still others.
If that is how things roll out, and the majority of states receive RTT funds, then how do we ensure that we are really putting the dollars on the specific interventions and action items that will boost student achievement and close the achievement gap?  We struggled in tracking federal effectiveness in RF (with some reporter friends reminding me that ED still hasn’t accounted for how those dollars were actually spent) and that was just focused on a singular issue of reading instruction in grades 3-8?  How do we track, measure, and report progress and effectiveness of a host of issues that may be uncommon across states?  How do we make sure that states are truly using the dollars to race to the top, and aren’t simply stuck in neutral with a gear shift that’s a little too loose?
The clock is ticking on the 30-day review period for RTT.  Do I think the scope will narrow?  No.  But the criteria for evaluating state applications and awarding grants could do the trick.

231 thoughts on “Largest ED Discretionary Program in History?

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