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States 'Race' To Adopt Obama's Schools Policies

President Obama visits sixth-grade students at the Graham Road Elementary School in Falls Church, Va., in January. A huge pot of money is helping the White House convince states to change their education laws.
Kristoffer Tripplaar
Getty Images
President Obama visits sixth-grade students at the Graham Road Elementary School in Falls Church, Va., in January. A huge pot of money is helping the White House convince states to change their education laws.

President Obama has been prodding states to take a new approach when it comes to education policy. His most effective tool: money.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced Thursday the 16 finalists for the first round of "Race to the Top" funding. That's a $4.35 billion pot of money created by last year's stimulus law. The finalists are Colorado, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and Tennessee.

Grants will go to states that are pursuing education policies most in line with Obama administration priorities, such as lifting caps on charter schools and paying teachers more for performance.


Setting New Standards

The federal government still provides less than 10 percent of the $600 billion spent annually on K-12 education nationwide. But no previous education secretary has had this much money at his disposal. (Federal education dollars are typically doled out according to set formulas.)

Before a penny has been released, Race to the Top has proven to be a strong incentive. Forty states and the District of Columbia have applied for grants. Ten states have gone so far as to change laws to comply with administration goals and become stronger candidates for the cash.

"There's no question those of us in Wisconsin want to have as strong an application as we can to get at the $4.35 billion," Wisconsin Senate Education Committee Chairman John Lehman said last November, as his chamber debated a package of four bills meant to please Duncan, who had called the state's education laws "ridiculous" during a Madison visit the day before.

Duncan has set aside $350 million from the fund to help states pay for tests that would comply with a new set of common standards. Standards are the basic material that students are expected to know at each grade level.


The National Governors Association and other groups have been drafting the new standards, which all but two states have agreed in principle to consider adopting. Duncan has made adherence to the standards a key criterion for receiving Race to the Top grants.

"The amount of state-level policy changes in the last few months that this has generated is really unprecedented," says Andrew Rotherham, co-founder and publisher of Education Sector, a Washington-based think tank. "It was an ambitious set of proposals for reform, and it came at a time when states needed money."

Union Resistance

The ideas that Race to the Top promotes resemble programs that Duncan pushed as the CEO of schools in Chicago. They're a package of ideas meant to shake up the education marketplace by introducing more competition, whether through charters that challenge district-run schools for students or among teachers who might be paid more for performance.

Some of these ideas have been anathema to teachers unions. Duncan has been careful to include unions in the negotiations over how some of these ideas are to be implemented. One of his regular talking points has been to say that he wants policy change to happen "with teachers, not to teachers."

But the unions remain wary about parts of this package. They were also angered when Obama and Duncan applauded the recent decision by a high school in Rhode Island to fire all its teachers when the local union balked at a package of reform proposals.

"President Obama's comments ... condoning the mass firing of the Central Falls High School teachers do not reflect the reality on the ground and completely ignore the teachers' significant commitment to working with others to transform this school," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement Monday.

Further negotiations announced Wednesday look likely to stave off the mass firings. But the Obama administration has tightened accountability requirements for districts seeking aid to address struggling schools.

Other Critics

Diane Ravitch, a former Education Department official and influential voice in policy debates, has a new book critical of some of the ideas Duncan is promoting.

"I was known as a conservative advocate of many of these policies," she said on NPR's Morning Edition on Tuesday. "But I've looked at the evidence, and I've concluded they're wrong."

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has also grown critical of Obama's approach, saying that the administration is straying too far from the traditional federal role in education of supporting programs that serve poor and disadvantaged children.

"The administration has made a decision that they're going to try to use limited federal resources to leverage change in the entire system," says David Shreve, an education policy expert with NCSL.

A Success So Far?

Despite a few critical voices, however, most people on the education policy committee seem pleased that the administration is pushing ideas that have been germinating over the past decade.

Education was one of the few program areas in Obama's recent budget to see an increase in funding. And the Race to the Top exercise has made it clear that the administration will continue to push for further policy changes when Congress turns its attention to an overdue rewrite of federal education law.

"The administration has consistently said that the four big areas of focus that are in Race to the Top are going to be the focus throughout," says Andy Smarick, a distinguished visiting fellow at the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank. "Unions are one of the very few groups outside of this consensus."

Although the administration has enjoyed success in promoting its ideas so far, it's too early to declare victory. Getting most states to agree in principle to innovations is a coup, but determining how these ideas will be implemented over time will provide the real challenge.

"To date, it's been a success," says Education Sector's Rotherham. "But it's complicated and it's too soon to tell. In a couple of years, we'll be able to have a much more thorough analysis of what happened with Race to the Top."

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