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How Will Duncan Use $700M in New Race to the Top Funds?

In an era of cuts, cuts, and more cuts, the Obama administration scored a big victory when it secured $700 million for a new version of Race to the Top in the budget deal that funds the government through September.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan & Co. are not spilling the details yet as to what the next iteration of this popular competition will look like. (And we've asked!) But that's not going to stop Politics K-12 from speculating anyway.

First off, it's important to remember that the law creating Race to the Top—the economic-stimulus package—is the law that governs the new version, too. The stimulus gave Duncan a nearly blank check worth $4.5 billion, and he ran with it and created what we all know now as Race to the Top. Earlier this month, Congress essentially wrote him another $700 million blank check. So we shouldn't assume Duncan is going to create the same competition again, especially given the compressed timeline. The fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, which means, in all likelihood, awards must be made within the next five months. UPDATE: Actually, money doesn't have to be given out until Dec. 31, the department says, which buys them more time.

In fact, Race to the Top 2.0 will probably look very different. It definitely will in one regard, as there's a new focus on early childhood education. The budget Congress passed doesn't say how Duncan and the department should focus on early ed., or even how much of the $700 million should be devoted to it. But it seems like a good bet, given the department's failed plan to create an Early Learning Challenge Fund, that we'll see a mini-Race to the Top that has states dream up early-ed. proposals and compete against each other for prize money. (Which, by the way, states will get to keep since the Race to the Top provision that requires half the money to go districts does not apply to the early ed. competition.)

As for the remaining pot of money that's not used for a separate early ed. competition, there's been some talk about whether Duncan will use the money to fund states that lost out in the first competition. After all, Congress inserted language into the budget law specifically allowing Duncan to award the money based on previous applications.

But why would he? Duncan, a proponent of incentive-based reform, has shown big—but not quite big enough— promises, is like throwing money down the drain.

Now that the stimulus funds have all been awarded, and especially if Congress does not reauthorize ESEA, this $700 million will be one of the biggest levers Duncan has left to advance his agenda. He'll want to make the most of it.

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