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Race to the Top: Where the Money Might Go If It Were Purely Political

Let me say from the outset, that despite my headline, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has made it very clear, repeatedly, that he doesn't think politics are going to play any kind of role in deciding which states snag one of the highly coveted Race to the Top grants. He's lining up "disinterested superstars" and has a very detailed rubric determining how grants will be doled out, probably in part to avoid those sorts of accusations.

However, it's interesting to speculate on who would have an edge if Race to the Top were purely, or even partly, political. And, despite the department's best efforts, if certain states get grants, I'm sure some folks out there will wonder whether politics had any sort of role in that decision.

There's been speculation that purple states, particularly those with endangered Democrat incumbents like Ohio (Gov. Ted Strickland) and Colorado (Sen. Michael Bennet) might have an edge. And that's a great point.

But I'd like to suggest that, particularly if Duncan wants Congress to provide more money for competitive grant programs similar to Race to the Top, not to mention finance and enact the rest of his ambitious agenda, he and his team will be very lucky if California, Hawaii, Nevada, Wisconsin and especially, Iowa, submit stellar applications.

Why? Two of those states have lawmakers who are congressional leaders. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., is the Speaker of the House, and embattled incumbent Sen. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, hails from Nevada, which is going to sit out Round 1 of the application process.

Hawaii and Wisconsin are home to the very powerful appropriations chairmen (Sen. Daniel Inouye, and Rep. David R. Obey, respectively.) Obey in particular has been critical of parts of Duncan's agenda.

And Sen. Tom Harkin is from Iowa. He heads up two really important committees: the Senate, Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which oversees K-12 policy, and the Senate appropriations subcommittee that's in charge of K-12 spending. Especially if reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Act gets going this year, Duncan will want to make an ally out of Harkin.

If some of these states don't get RT3 grants, they—and their districts—might be good bets for some of the other pots of money, such as the $650 million Investing in Innovation grants, which help districts scale up promising practices, and the $200 million in new Teacher Incentive Fund money, which goes to districts to help set up pay-for-performance programs.

No matter what happens, Duncan may run into some trouble getting more money for competitive grant programs if folks in Congress don't like the way he's giving it out, Joel Packer, the executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, and a former lobbyist for NEA, told me.

"At some point this year, it's going to become clear which states and districts are the winners—and which are the losers," Packer said. And some lawmakers may reconsider whether they want to give a lot of discretionary dollars to Duncan, he added. They might say "hey wait, are we giving too much power to the Secretary of Education?"

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