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Race to the Top: When Should We Ask for Our Money Back?

During a Race to the Top forum hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce today, some well-known education policy wonks got especially tough with Race to the Top states.

If the 12 winners don't show improvement in student achievement in Year 2 (which would be next year at the latest), "Shame on them," declared former Louisiana schools chief Paul Pastorek, whose state was considered a favorite to win to Race to the Top last year, but ultimately lost.

And Charlie Barone, of the Democrats for Education Reform, said the U.S. Department of Education needs to start asking for taxpayers' money back next year because it's already "clear" which states are serious about their reforms and which aren't. (He didn't name names, although several others later beat up on Hawaii.)

It's one thing to talk tough and demand money back, and another thing for the U.S. Department of Education to do it in a highly politically charged Washington environment, noted Christopher Cross, who was a top official in the Education Department during the George H.W. Bush administration.

These comments raise very important questions: Is next year too soon to expect results from Race to the Top, a comprehensive education-reform strategy that's in the early stages of implementation? And even if there's improvement, should we automatically assume it's because of Race to the Top? Regardless, what criteria will the department use to decide when it's time to resort to enforcement action against a Race to the Top state, and what will trigger the most severe penalty: withholding money or asking for it back?

The thing is, states had to set student achievement goals as part of their applications, but those goals were set for four or five years down the road. By then, the grant period will have expired and the money will be spent. In other words, the department won't be holding states accountable for student achievement goals they set in their applications, which is a good thing for some states that set sky-high goals.

This was a decision the Education Department made consciously, and chief of staff Joanne Weiss outlines the debate that went on among senior staffers in this story, which also details states' student achievement goals. To be sure, the department is eagle-eyeing key milestones—whether it's implementing a teacher evaluation system, or having a data system that links student and individual teacher information.

In fact, the National Center for Teaching Quality's Kate Walsh said if Hawaii doesn't lose its Race to the Top money for teacher evaluation failures, "something is wrong."

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