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Grading Race to the Top on a Proper Curve

Nope, I'm not talking about grading the Race to the Top (RTT) winners. Frankly, I don't have much confidence in the elaborate scoring system that the Department of Education jury-rigged--especially not after Ohio, Hawaii, and New York finished in the money while Louisiana and Colorado were ludicrously left out in the cold. As if my skeptical natured needed more cause for worry after the post hoc "norming" of i3 grades and the concerns raised regarding judge selection and training, blatant disregard for application guidelines, and emphasis on airy promises rather than concrete actions already taken. And, given the number of new governors, legislators, and state chiefs who will be taking office by early 2011, I'm not sure how much credence to put in the promises states have made. That said, I do want to offer a special congratulations to my hard-charging friends in Rhode Island, D.C., Florida, and Massachusetts, and was glad to see their efforts recognized (Full disclosure: for what it's worth, I served as an advisor on the Massachusetts RTT application).

Rather than play the "who got a rose" game, though, I just want to make two typically dyspeptic points amidst this season of RTT mirth.

First, for all the cheers being lapped up by our earnest Secretary of Education, it's important to grade the administration's efforts on an appropriate curve. After all, ED's unprecedented impact is only being made possible by an extraordinary bout of federal edu-spending--and the unprecedented borrowing that made it possible. While observers frequently note the big bang that Duncan has gotten from "just" $4.35 billion for RTT, it's worth recalling that it cost more than $120 billion in federal edu-stimulus and the Edjujobs bill to buy that handful of reform dollars. And, while limited relative to the enormous status quo spending that Duncan has cheered, that $4.35 billion still dwarfs the "reform" dollars available to all previous Secretaries of Education--combined.

So, even for those who ardently support Duncan's efforts, it's worth keeping in mind how aggressively we're raiding our kids' college funds in order to fund his agenda. After all, any superintendent can have an outsized impact if he spends wheelbarrows of borrowed cash that his successors will have to repay. An honest reckoning mandates taking such behavior into account.

Second, there's a crucial opportunity cost to RTT that's gone largely unnoted. In the midst of a fiscal crunch which calls for smart budget-cutting and careful rethinking, RTT has encouraged state leaders and reformers to focus on dreaming up new ways to spend. Chasing new dollars has allowed state chiefs and legislatures to ignore less pleasant questions and to plug in hoped-for federal funds when baking the state schools budget. This has all served to sap time and attention from efforts to identify efficiencies, tackle problems with pensions and benefits, or help districts identify cost-savings and then muster the will to pursue them.

State chiefs don't have all that much talent in their offices, and their best people--and their consultants of choice--have been more intent on dreaming up RTT-compliant proposals than on figuring out how and where to cut smart. Is it any surprise that budget-cutting, pushed off to the last minute and approached with little sustained thought, has typically been reflexive and desperate?

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