President Obama’s “Race to the Top”

Last week President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced the U.S. Department of Education’s new “Race to the Top” contest, giving states the opportunity to compete for $4.35 billion in federal education funding. In order to compete for funds, the contest requires states to submit plans for overhauling their education systems with specific components including linking teacher pay to student achievement, easing restrictions on charter schools, improving strategies for recruiting and retaining effective teachers, tracking student performance data, raising academic standards, and developing action plans for turning around failing schools. President Obama contends that research evidence points to these components as critical to improving student achievement.

The president referred to the contest as an example of “evidence-based” policy making. But the contest has already been and will continue to be quite politically controversial. Several of the contest’s requirements, namely merit pay for teachers tied to student performance and the expansion of charter schools, have been measures that teachers unions—traditional supporters of Democratic administrations—have fought against. President Obama has said that that there will undoubtedly be both winners and losers in the contest, and that politics will not come into play in deciding which states will be the winners of the funding. But as the 2012 presidential election approaches, is the promise that the “Race to the Top” will be insulated from politics a realistic one?

Denying education funding to electorally critical swing states whose reform plans might not meet the Department of Education’s requirements would take a lot of courage on the part of the Obama administration. That being said, including such requirements for state reform plans took courage. The president has shown since the 2008 primaries that he is not afraid to take education policy stances that conflict with positions of the traditional public education establishment which includes the NEA and the AFT. Only time will tell whether the Obama Department of Education will back down in the face of electoral threat, or states like Ohio and Pennsylvania will defy the wishes of politically powerful teachers unions and agree to make controversial reforms to be eligible for the contest’s funding. My guess is that the enticement of $4 billion in funding will be enough to at least push many states to attempt to make the reforms the President endorses, setting the stage for some very interesting state-level education policy battles.

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