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Good News and Bad News for Race to the Top Fans

Supporters of the $4 billion Race to the Top program, the Obama administration's signature K-12 initiative, have reasons to both cheer and jeer at Congress this week.

First, Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Democratic Independent from Connecticut, introduced a bill Wednesday that would authorize the program for five more years. Race to the Top originally got its authorization under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka the stimulus.) But that law covered just fiscal year 2009 and fiscal year 2010, which ends Sept. 30.

Congress can still provide money for Race to the Top, even though its authorization under the stimulus has technically expired. But this bill would be a prominent way for lawmakers to essentially say "Hey, we like Race to the Top, and we want to keep it around a while longer." Plus, Congress could make programmatic changes to the competition, if it wants to.

The bill would more or less codify many of the priorities the department has already emphasized in Race to the Top, authorizing $1.35 billion for the program next year. (That's not the same thing as actually giving the program $1.35 billion, though.) And it would open up the program to school districts, as the Obama administration wanted. Grantees would have to show that they are improving outcomes for all students, closing achievement gaps, and boosting high school graduation and college enrollment rates.

And they'd also have to address those four big areas originally spelled out in the stimulus (teacher quality and distribution, data systems, turning around low-performing schools, and standards and assessments.) They'd also have to discuss their plans for promoting good charters, and for supporting early-childhood and early elementary school programs (birth through third grade.) That's an area some folks said didn't get enough emphasis in Race to the Top 1.0.

The department would have to explain how the review process will "ensure a fair and objective evaluation," Polis told me in an interview. That will help the department "implement the [review] process even better" than it did in the first year of the program.

The bill doesn't make wholesale changes to the scoring system. "Congressional micromanagement of the process would not be beneficial," Polis said.

Interestingly, Polis remains a huge fan of the program, even though the peer reviewers ultimately dissed his home state, which was originally considered a frontrunner. He said Race to the Top "has been a very powerful tool" for the department to urge states to embrace good practices.

Erika Masonhall, a spokeswoman for Lieberman, said the program is important, even though Connecticut hasn't been successful so far. "It's inspiring states everywhere to work harder," she said.

Polis and Lieberman would work to get support for the bill during the upcoming lame duck session, Polis said. But he acknowledged it probably won't pass this year. The bill could ultimately be rolled into the broader reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, he added.

Race to the Top fans might not be so happy about this, however: As usual, Congress is behind schedule in completing its appropriations bills for fiscal year 2011, which starts Oct. 1. And as usual, they've introduced a Continuing Resolution, or CR, which would basically finance most programs at fiscal year 2010 levels for a couple of months or so, until Congress can get its act together to pass the real appropriations bills (likely in a lame duck session after the election).

Well, the administration was hoping Congress would put money into the CR to extend Race to the Top and the Investing in Innovation grant program, which scales up promising practices at the state and district levels. Apparently, they wanted as much money for those programs as was in their budget ($1.35 billion for Race to the Top, plus $500 million for i3).

That's a lot more than Congress appears poised to give those programs in the next fiscal year (a House bill has $800 million for Race to the Top and $400 million for i3, a Senate bill has $675 million for Race to the Top and $250 million for i3.).

Congressional leaders basically said: No dice.

Race to the Top and i3 are best dealt with through the regular, appropriations process for fiscal year 2011, a Senate aide told me. A program is typically funded through a CR because NOT funding it would lead to major consequences, such as services being discontinued or people losing their jobs. That's just not the case with these competitive programs, the aide explained.

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