This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The Notebook recently began sharing content with Education Week, where this piece originally appeared.
by Michele McNeil
For U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, handing out hundreds of millions in federal money isn’t as easy as it once was.
The May 25 announcement that he’ll divvy up $700 million in new Race to the Top funding between the nine states that narrowly missed out last year and a $500 million early-childhood education competition has drawn a mixed—and, in at least one case, almost hostile—response.
The pushback centers mainly on the smaller of the two pots: the $200 million that will be made available to the nine runners-up from last year in grants of $10 million to $50 million a state could use to implement some piece of its original Race to the Top proposal.
South Carolina Education Superintendent Mick Zais—in a move that upset local school board and administrator groups—declared that his state will not compete in this latest round.
“The Race to the Top program expands the federal role in education by offering pieces of silver in exchange for strings attached to Washington,” he said in a May 25 statement. “The previous two rounds of Race to the Top were not competitive grant programs; they were top-down directives forcing states to adopt programs favored by Washington.”
Education policy advocates were more excited about the prospect of $500 million being injected into early education through a still-being-designed competitive grant program modeled on Race to the Top.
“This is a down payment. It is enough to play a catalytic role that could produce more proof points about what it takes to build an effective system that could ensure both quality and accountability,” said Ralph Smith, the executive vice president of the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, which works on behalf of disadvantaged children.
Extending the Brand
The $700 million in new federal money to extend the Race to the Top brand was part of the 2011 fiscal budget deal Congress passed in April. Aside from the requirement that he make early education a priority in this new round of funding, Mr. Duncan was given the same broad authority to hand out the money as he was under the original $4 billion program, created through the economic-stimulus package of 2009.
All of the money must be awarded by Dec. 31, and the department has said more details on the rules, application procedures, and timelines for both competitions will be released in the coming weeks.
In deciding to set aside $200 million of the new money for the nine states that were finalists in last year’s Race to the Top competitions, Mr. Duncan said there were strong applicants that he wanted to fund but couldn’t because the money ran out.
“It is not a competition between them,” Duncan told reporters in a press call after announcing the new round of funding. “Where [states] want to continue to drive reform, we want to invest. Where they’ve lost interest or lost courage we won’t.”
The $200 million pot has drawn controversy in part because four of the states have new governors who had nothing to do with their states’ original Race to the Top proposals: California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina.
South Carolina’s state schools chief—also elected since last year’s competition—upset many in that state by bowing out of the competition. The state’s school boards and school administrators’ organizations have said they would like to apply if the state superintendent doesn’t change his mind, The Associated Press reported. But since Congress specified that the money be awarded to states, it’s unlikely federal officials would embrace that idea.
Pennsylvania officials, meanwhile, have indicated they won’t apply if the state is bound to submit part of its original Race to the Top proposal, which was crafted under the Democratic administration of former Gov. Ed Rendell. Now, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett is running the show. Any proposal would be an entirely new one, Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesman Timothy Eller said.
But the U.S. Department of Education has said that the money is designed to fund parts of a state’s existing plan, and officials there could not say yet whether wholly new plans would be allowed. Those details will come out in the coming weeks, officials said.
At least four states want a third crack at the prize: Arizona, New Jersey, Louisiana, and Colorado all said they were very interested in applying.
Louisiana spokeswoman Rene Greer described her state’s reaction as “extremely enthusiastic.” She said: “Despite coming up short in round one and round two, our state continues to move forward with urgency to adopt school turnaround and human capital strategies with the aim of achieving systemic and sustainable progress at the school, district and state level.”
Other states, including California and Kentucky, offered more tepid responses. Kentucky’s education department spokeswoman Lisa Gross said the state is always on the lookout for additional funding streams, but would review the offer “closely.”
And California officials said they would need to know more before committing. (California is one of the states with a change in governor, as Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown has replaced former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.)
Part of the reluctance to go after this money also likely stems from the much smaller carrot that’s now being offered in exchange for federal dollars.
The grants are a sliver of what they were in the first two rounds, when awards started at $75 million for the smallest winners, such as Hawaii, Rhode Island, and the District of Columbia, and ranged up to $700 million for the largest, Florida and New York. For this third round, California, the largest state, stands to gain only up to $50 million. Smaller states such as Colorado could get closer to $10 million.
What does that buy these states? Not a whole lot, according to the budgets they submitted with their round-two plans.
For Colorado, a $10 million award would come close to covering the $11 million, four-year price tag of its plans to turn around its lowest-performing schools.
In California, a $50 million award could pick up the $18 million tab for new assessments aligned to new standards, $20 million for data coaches, and $10 million for a new data portal.
Individual state awards could be larger if any of the nine states drop out, leaving more money for everyone else.
Meanwhile, the National Governors Association, the Washington-based organization that represents all of the governors, is unhappy about how the whole process governing the $700 million came together.
Joan Wodiska, the education committee director for the NGA, said federal education department officials called a meeting May 17 to solicit the organization’s input on what the third round should look like. Officials at NGA said they promised to work quickly to gather governors’ input, but eight days later, the department was announcing an entirely new competition and a second chance for the nine finalist states from last year.
The NGA, in a statement after the May 25 announcement, called on the Education Department “to work in a transparent, open process and establish a clear, reasonable timeline to authentically work with governors.”
Ms. Wodiska said governors now have big questions about the timeline and process for these two programs. She also noted that there are 29 new governors, most of whom don’t have a shot at the $200 million for last year’s runners-up.
Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said the department meant no slight. “We think the NGA is a critical partner in our efforts to reform national K-12 education. We’ve always valued their leadership and look forward to continuing our important work with them.”
He added that the department had to move quickly to implement the programs, since the money has to be out the door by Dec. 31. For the $200 million available to the nine finalists, Hamilton said: “We didn’t have time to re-regulate and establish a brand new competition. Our preference was to capitalize on the hard work that had already been completed and not ask anyone to duplicate anything or start over.”
Boosting Early Education
The prospect of new money for early education was greeted more warmly.
“This is not about the programming,” said Mr. Smith, of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “It’s about building a quality system. Or a system that will assure high quality over time.”
But even amid the excitement there are concerns.
Still unknown are how large the grants might be, on what criteria states will be judged, and what the timeline and process for applying will be. What’s more, because the timeline is so tight the department is skipping the formal rulemaking process, which would have allowed for more formal public input. Instead, the department is taking comments through its website.
And analysts at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, are concerned that putting early education in a separate Race to the Top stream does little to encourage alignment between state’s K-12 systems and early education.
The new competition “is completely missing a connection with the early grades of elementary school, when children are still developing social-emotional skills and learning how to learn,” the foundation’s early education experts wrote May 26 on their Early Ed Watch blog.