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What Do State Policymakers Think of Race to the Top?

Note: Andrew Saultz, assistant professor of educational leadership at Miami University of Ohio, is guest posting this week.

Following the Race to the Top (RT3) competition for states, I spent a year talking with high-ranking state policymakers (state superintendents, officials from state departments of education, and governors offices) throughout the country about their reactions and interpretations of RT3. I wanted to understand their experience with the competition, and I was especially interested in how they discussed RT3 with federal policymakers. RT3 is an example of a burgeoning policy tool used at federal and state levels, like Ohio's Straight A Fund, the federal i3 grants, or other Race to the Top grants at the district and pre-K level. Competitive grants as a policy tool are here to stay. Today, I outline the lessons state policymakers think we should learn from their experience with RT3. It is my hope that these takeaways better inform future policy.

It's not all about the money

Much of the public dialogue about RT3 focused on the United States Department of Education (USDOE) inducing state-level policy changes with federal dollars. Since the competition occurred during the Great Recession, it is easy to understand how many came to this conclusion. However, policymakers at the state level downplayed the importance of money when discussing why their states applied to RT3. Instead, state officials emphasized how return on investment studies showed that RT3 funding would actually be cost neutral or have a negative impact on the state's education budget in the long term. State policymakers realized that the federal money would not sustain implementation costs. Rather than money providing inroads for outside policy solutions, funding instead helped catalyze political support for already existing policies. 

RT3 provided political cover

State policymakers emphasized that RT3 supported many policy initiatives that they wanted for some time, but could not harbor the political consensus to pass in the state legislature. During conversations surrounding RT3, officials at the state level used the competition as leverage for seeking quick, tangible change to longstanding, and politically contentious, policies like teacher evaluation and charter schools. The arguments embedded within RT3 about how to improve schools helped state-level actors strengthen their already existing, yet previously unsuccessful, policy arguments.

Urban bias

Officials in multiple states emphasized their frustration over RT3's criteria. In particular, they noted that many of the reforms were difficult to implement in states that had a large majority of of rural districts, like Kentucky and Idaho. For example, some state officials said it was difficult to close schools, fire principals and/or the majority of teachers, and implement aggressive charter school policies in remote school districts. Further, they questioned Arne Duncan's understanding and background in rural educational policy. One state superintendent went so far as saying, "The whole world is not Chicago, Arne. So stop pretending that [policies from Chicago] will work everywhere." The structure of future competitions should better address rural needs if the federal government wants broad participation.

Incentivized exaggeration

Many of the state superintendents I spoke with were frustrated with the structure and evaluation of the RT3 applications. Multiple state actors emphasized that some of the states that won grants presented RT3 proposals with unrealistic timelines or scopes. Shortly after the RT3 Round 2 winners were announced, states began seeking amendments to their implementation plans. The USDOE even put Hawaii on probation and threatened to revoke RT3 funds altogether. Many of the people felt that states were penalized for presenting realistic timelines for implementation. Policymakers should look for ways to provide more equitable evaluation of grants in the future by reining in hyperbolic proposals.  

So what are the big takeaways about competitive grants?

  1. They are here to stay in educational policy.
  2. They have the potential to create quick policy changes.
  3. Policymakers can use momentum from one level of government (i.e., federal) to leverage change at another level (i.e., state).
  4. They should be designed in ways that help garner broad participation.
  5. Future competitions need to find a better way to minimize exaggerated proposals.

I am blogging for Rick all week and will continue to focus on the role of the federal government in educational policy. Tomorrow, I will present an alternative way to think about, and evaluate, RT3. On Wednesday, my post will provide insight into why Washington State lost its NCLB Waiver, and how state policymakers reacted.  On Thursday, I offer my thoughts on what the role of the federal, state, and local government should be in educational policy. Lastly, I will wrap up the week by discussing my ideas for ESEA reauthorization.

--Andrew Saultz

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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