Changes to the “Race” Track?

Are there changes underfoot for the Race to the Top?  When the $4.35 billion grant program was first conceived, some senior personnel at the U.S. Department of Education hypothesized that awards may only go to a handful of states, maybe only four or five.  Since then, those “in the know” have come around to expect that 10-15 states would ultimately be named “Race” states, a belief only further strengthened by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s recent support of 15 states in their RttT applications.

Those looking to handicap the RttT field have committed the 15 Gates “favorite children” to memory.  Currently, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Texas are benefiting from the full and unfettered support of the Gates Foundation, including $250,000 grants to fund Gates-approved consultants to put in the nearly 900 manhours expected from a successful Race application.  In addition to the funding, these top 15 also receive the unofficial endorsement of Gates, seen by many as the quickest path to RttT success (except for the Lone Star State, which few expect to make the final cut).
But a funny thing happened on the way to finalizing the RttT RFP.  Over at EdWeek’s Politics K-12 blog, Michele McNeil has a significantly important development in the Race to the Top.  The Cliff Notes version — Gates is now looking to extend some form of RttT technical assistance to any and all states that can answer eight ed reform questions correctly.  Pass the filter on topics such as core standards, alternative certification, and the firewall, and you too can benefit from the benefits of Gates.  The full story is here.
Why is this development significant?  Two important reasons.  According to McNeil, this expansion of Gates assistance is due, in large part, to the urgings of the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers.  Since the start of the Duncan regime at ED, NGA and CCSSO have been two of the leading forces in education improvement.  The two groups are credited with helping secure the cornucopia of new funding made available through the economic stimulus bill, including RttT and the upcoming Investing in Innovation program.  More important, NGA and CCSSO are the drivers behind the core standards effort, a top priority for the Administration (at least in terms of education) and a non-negotiable for RttT applicants.
NGA and CCSSO were clearly advocating for the other 35 members of their organizations (the remaining states), and that advocacy was heard loud and clear by Gates.  So for those who questions the position of strength both state-focused organizations are operating under, it doesn’t get much stronger than having ED and Gates both adjust their strategies based on your requests and concerns.
And the second?  For weeks now, Eduflack has been hearing that there is a growing drumbeat for RttT scope expansion.  While there may not be additional dollars, more and more voices are clamoring for a greater sense of “sharing the wealth.”  For those 35 states perceived as on the outside looking in, they’d rather have a half-share of RttT than a full share of nothing.  And as ED tries to make wholesale improvements to our nation’s education system, it is far easier to do so with a RttT lever in 35 states than it is in 12.  So the gossip is likely true, and the intended number of RttT states is going to at least double before all is said and done this time next year, when Phase Two RttT awards are determined.
What does it all mean?  When all is said and done, we’re likely looking at 35-40 RttT states, not 10-15.  And we may even be seeing some exceptions or waivers made for high-profile states that don’t meet requirements around firewalls and charter caps.  Smaller checks for everyone, I’m afraid, but a larger cohort to actually deliver results and move the ball forward on ED’s priorities.
But it makes the entire RttT review process all the more curious.  Most states are scurrying to get their apps in as part of Phase One, figuring it increases the chances of winning an award.  After all, no one wants to be left without a chair when the music stops.  But what if we’re working like college admissions, where early decision applicants (Phase One) who don’t make the first cut get put into the general apps pool with the regular decision applicants (Phase Two)?  While there obviously won’t be time for Phase One applicants to revise and resubmit their applications for Phase Two, do circumstances change when ED is trying to fill out that final list of 40?  Do expectations and standards drop in Phase Two, after the truly Gates-supported states have had the first bite of the apple?  Only time will tell.

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