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Betsy DeVos: My COVID-19 Competitive Grants Aren't Like Race to the Top at All


Last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced  $180 million in grants designed to help parents access online learning and other educational services during the coronavirus pandemic. This money represents a tiny fraction of the recently adoped federal relief package's money for K-12 and higher education, but it drew a lot of attention from reporters, analysts, and others. 

So is it Betsy DeVos' version of Race to the Top, the Obama administration's signature competitive grant program for education?

Rick Hess, who writes an opinion blog for Education Week, put that question to her in a Q&A with DeVos published Thursday. Here's the main part of DeVos' response: 

Not even a little bit. I don't see any parallels, to be honest. Race to the Top was wholly designed by the Obama administration to advance their policy priorities. It was a significantly larger pot of money—billions versus millions—and it gave states no choice but to adopt their top-down directives, like adopting common curriculum standards, in order to receive funds.

Our discretionary grant competition is completely the opposite. It's a small pot of money—1 percent of the CARES Act funding—and it has no link to any of the other funding streams. It also gives great latitude to the states to come up with innovative ways to address helping students most impacted by coronavirus-related education disruptions. Yes, it is focused on reforms, but they are reforms that any intellectually honest person would have a hard time arguing aren't needed.

Background: You can read more about those competitive grants here. The Coronavirus Relief, Aid, and Economic Security (CARES) Act signed by President Donald Trump in March set aside 1 percent of the nearly $30 billion in K-12 and higher education aid for the secretary to distribute to states that have the "highest coronavirus burden." That's the authority DeVos used to create these grants, which are titled "Rethink K-12 Education Models."

Here are a few things to know about DeVos' response: 

• She's right that in terms of the total dollar amount, her CARES Act grants are a lot smaller than Race to the Top. DeVos gave out $180 million in that 1 percent set aside for the "microgrants" for families and other flexibile spending—so in terms of K-12, that's actually less than 1 percent of all the CARES money earmarked for education (higher education got aid as well).

Meanwhile, the initial Race to the Top grants got more than $4 billion from the 2009 stimulus. Tennessee's 2010 Race to the Top grant alone was more than two-and-a-half times bigger than the entire K-12 competitive grant program DeVos is talking about. The Race to the Top grants were roughly 4 percent of total education spending in the 2009 stimulus, which isn't a huge share of the pie either. But the kind of disparity DeVos is talking about still matters. 

• DeVos is most prominent for pushing for educational choice, whether that be private school vouchers, education savings accounts, charter schools, or other forms. Her signature proposal in Congress is called "Education Freedom Scholarships." And she's frequently emphasized how individual students, not systems, should be the priority for education spending. DeVos advertised the new "Rethink" grants by tying them to the idea that leaders should "provide education freedom" to help students as they address the pandemic.

So to imply that Race to the Top was "wholly designed" by the Obama Education Department to "advance their policy priorities," but that these grants are not strongly connected with DeVos' preferences, might not ring true for some. 

• You'll get different and very strongly held opinions about what Race to the Top represented, and what it became over the life of the grants—we won't get into all the history here. Some argue that the roots of what states agreed to do under Race to the Top had been in the works for decades, and represented a key step forward for education policy. Others say the idea evolved into a tedious and ineffective micromanagement of schools, and that the Obama Education Department was too concerned with inputs not just outputs. And certainly, states had significantly different experiences with Race to the Top. It is significant that Democratic candidates for president in 2020 have avoided pitching anything like Race to the Top. 

DeVos' grants aren't designed to drive systemic changes to fundamental policy areas like standards and accountability systems the same way Race to the Top did. However, they could help initiate or expand programs like online learning that could take on increasing importance as the nation grapples with COVID-19. 

• In general, the CARES Act is different than the 2009 stimulus for education in important ways. You can read more about that here

Photo: Andrew Harnik for the Associated Press

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