Turning This Race Into a Relay

A year ago, many words and many more column inches were committed to ensure that any and all realized that education funding coming through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) was a one-time deal.  States were originally discouraged from using State Fiscal Stabilization Fund dollars to pay teachers’ salaries, out of fear that that account will disappear as quickly as it appeared, thus leaving states looking for new funding to pay for essential educational services in two short years.

We may forget it now, but new competitive grant programs — Race to the Top and i3 chief among them — were part of the original ARRA funding.  We allocated $650 million to fund efforts to invest through innovation in our local school districts.  And we originally set aside $4.35 billion (now down to $4 billion, as $350 million has been pulled out specifically for data systems) to provide a select group of states big dollars to fund big changes in standards, teacher quality, school turnaround, and charters.

Today, the terms and conditions associated with RttT appeared to change.  This morning, President Obama announced his intention to seek an additional $1.35 billion in funding for the next generation of Race to the Top.  The preview story can be found in The Washington Post here, and Michele McNeil has the after-announcement reporting over at EdWeek here.   

Both pre- and post-coverage leaves us with some sketchy details.  Apparently, the intent is to provide additional Race funding for states, while also making dollars available to some school districts.  The LEA component makes sense, particularly if states like California and New York are unable to put forward a truly competitive RttT application.  This way, districts like Long Beach Unified and NYC can be rewarded for both their past efforts and future plans (fulfilling the RttT mission), while providing a path for future school districts to follow.

The state dollars become more interesting.  Is the intent to expand programs in worthy states, answering the call from states like Colorado who believe their alloted range of available dollars is too small to manage their ambitious plans?  Or is the intent to add another three or four states to the Race, expanding the total number of states and giving some the chance to revise their laws and their applications after the first two batches are released?  Eduflack has to believe the intent is the latter.  In fact, I wouldn’t at all be surprised if the terms of a Phase 3 Race grant reduced the need to demonstrate “past achievement” and instead provided smaller total grants to those states who have made real changes to be Race compliant and forward thinking.

We’ve heard a lot about Race being the single-largest discretionary program in the history of the U.S. Department of Education.  Now, the President will request this additional $1.35 billion in his February budget.  And with that request, we should expect to soon see an annual budget line item for Race, with dollars either adding states or expanding programs along the way.  Next year, Race will likely be added to ESEA reauthorization (as Reading First was to NCLB , making the policy (and the dollars) part of the federal code for the next five to eight years.  And then we’ve gone from a one-time booster shot for innovation toward an annual vaccination against the status quo and the fear of change.

Don’t believe Eduflack?  Just take a look at the words of House Education Chairman George Miller, who told EdWeek, “By continuing Race to the Top, the federal government shows it can be a partner in reform and work to uphold the integrity of the program so that these resources are used as intended and help leverage change.”  This isn’t an in-and-out engagement as originally believed.  We are launching educational nation-building.

And while we anticipate the details and the specifics of this extension (along with waiting with baited breath to see the 30 or so RttT apps that will arrive at Maryland Avenue today, and the 10-12 states that will win this first Race by September), one thing remains certain.  As the lifespan of RttT is extended, there will be a far greater emphasis on demonstrating success and tracking return on investment.  The mission will not be accomplished just because the money was distributed and we all feel better about ourselves as a result.  SEAs and LEAs will need to demonstrate, by preponderance of the evidence, that RttT boosted learning, increased student achievement, closed the achievement gap, and improved the quality and effectiveness of teaching, particularly in historically disadvantaged communities.

By many calculations, Reading First (the previously largest discretionary program in ED history) failed at truly documenting the cause/effect of RF dollars and student test scores.  We now need to learn from what worked and didn’t with regard to RF assessment and accountability and build a better mousetrap for Race.  Four years from now, we don’t want to be left having spent $6 billion on RttT reforms, but no irrefutable way to measure the true effectiveness of the program. Ultimately, when it comes to RttT assessment, it must be trust … but verify.

98 thoughts on “Turning This Race Into a Relay

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