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Congressional Pushback on Race to the Top, Competitive Grants

Last week, lawmakers began to turn up the pushback on the department's budget proposal, including an extension for the $4 billion Race to the Top program for another year.

Much of the ire came from the House Appropriations Committee, especially its chairman, Rep. David R. Obey, D-Wisc., who has questioned the administration's reform agenda in the past.

Here's a snippet from his opening statement at a hearing last week on the U.S. Department of Education's fiscal year 2011 budget, at which Secretary of Education Arne Duncan testified:

That request includes over $3.5 billion for new and untested initiatives, for which you will control how the funding is allocated to States, school districts, and other providers. In times like this, we need to worry about our core, foundational programs which go out by formula and are widely shared across the nation. A school district's ability to attract funds should not depend on its capacity to write a grant application.

I want to support this Administration and your education priorities, but not at the expense of reliable and predictable federal support that thousands of districts across the country depend on. Perhaps most troubling is the lack of any increase at all in the title I funds, which are broadly distributed by formula to all school districts in need. At the same time, the budget includes an extra $500 million to expand the Innovation Fund, which makes grants through competition run by your Department. Similarly, it seeks to more than double the appropriation for the Teacher Incentive Fund ($950 million) - even though your Department has yet to complete any rigorous evaluation of this five year old program.

Obey pointed out that he and Duncan are both Democrats and then said, "I just do not understand why when we finally have a shot at it, we're not greatly emphasizing Title I. I will be a whole lot more interested in putting money into reform efforts in two years when the economy is recovered than now when everybody is sucking for air."

And Obey asked just how Duncan plans to guard against Reading First-style conflict of interest problems, considering just how much money in competitive grants is at his disposal. Duncan assured him that he would be transparent and keep safeguards in place.

It's probably worth noting that Obey's home state of Wisconsin wasn't a finalist for the Race to the Top competition. He said during the hearing that state officials there told him that the program was mostly focused on the Badger State's five urban counties, not the whole, largely rural state.

I asked Obey directly after the hearing whether he would support the Race to the Top expansion. He said he'd let his statements about Title I funding speak for themselves.

So ... that sounded to me like a "probably not." Of course, in Congress, there's always horsetrading and the proposed $1.35 billion Race to the Top extension is a top priority for the administration, so it's tough to say at this early stage of the game that the extension is definitely out of the question.

Last year though, Obey helped block an Obama plan to shift money from Title I grants to districts to the School Improvement Grants. But he went along (mostly) with a big increase for the Teacher Incentive Fund.

And Obey isn't the only key member of Congress who has recently had questions about the Race to the Top program.

When the House Education and Labor Committee heard testimony from Duncan last week, Rep. John Kline, the top Republican on the committee, said he'd like to see the list of peer reviewers made public. (Maybe he's a Politics K-12 reader. Or checks one of the many other edublogs that wrote about this.)

Kline's line of questioning is especially interesting, given that Minnesota frequently made the list when folks (including of course, Edweek bloggers) made their guesses on who would be a Race to the Top finalist. It makes sense that Kline would want to know just who made the decision to leave the North Star State out of the finals.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Kline (one of the Big 8 the administration is targeting for help in pushing reauthorization) said he's somewhat skeptical of the proposal to extend Race to the Top for an additional year, since there isn't yet any data about the program's effectiveness, given that the money from the first round of grants has yet to flow.

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