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Congress Scores Race to the Top Scoring System

So now that the first round of winners have been announced, powerful members of Congress are starting to question the scoring system for the Race to the Top program.

During a hearing of today of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., went off on the Race to the Top's 500-point scoring system. (Remember, Louisiana was a finalist and widely viewed as a front-runner, but then came in 11th.)

Some folks said that Louisiana's plan was bolder than the two winners, Delaware and Tennessee. But those states had near universal support from districts and unions. Louisiana, on the other hand, only got buy-in from 67 percent of its districts and 78 percent of their unions. (You should also remember that Louisiana lost out on an easy 15 points for not having a strong STEM component in its plan, points that all other finalists got.)

That scoring system's emphasis on district and union buy-in shouldn't have mattered so much, Landrieu told Duncan. She said that the state may now be forced to "water down" its plan to get more folks to jump on board. That's not a recipe for a good reform strategy, she said.

"Nothing in our application was watered down," Landrieu said. "The problem is that if you push to get everyone there, you will give us no choice but to water down. ... There are many members [of Congress] ... that are absolutely taken aback by the posture of this department."

And she said that the Department should have tossed out the highest and the lowest scores for each state, sort of like the Olympics, or the McNeil-Sawchuk grading system. She asked Duncan whether the department planned on moving to a "more fair" grading system for the next round of funding.

In an interview after the hearing, Duncan said he was inclined to leave the current system in place, because he likes the "diversity of opinion" it offers.

Later in the hearing, the top Republican on the subcommittee, Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, went off on what he sees as a lack of emphasis on science, math, engineering, and technology in Race to the Top. States got an extra 15 points if they address those subjects.

But Shelby doesn't think 15 points out of a possible 500 is enough. He said he found it "troubling" and wants to see that changed.

Why does all this matter? Well, this is the committee that gets to set spending levels for education programs, and many of its members also sit on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which sets K-12 policy.

Their questions don't necessarily mean that the U.S. Department of Education won't get that $1.35 billion Race to the Top extension they are asking for. But it does seem to mean that Congress is inclined to put its own twist on the program.

UPDATE: In an interview after the hearing Sen. Tom Harkin, the chairman of the education appropriations panel and also the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, sketched out a timeline for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Act. He's aiming to get a bill marked-up in late spring and on the floor of the Senate over the summer, so June/July, although he acknowledges that the Supreme Court vacancy could monkey with that timeline.

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