Policy Documents

More States Abandon Race to the Top

Sarah McIntosh –
June 29, 2010

Round two of the federal government’s $4.35 billion Race to the Top grant competition may be underway, but several states have already abandoned the track.

Two states—Tennessee and Delaware—received $600 million in the competition’s first round, leaving several runners-up disappointed and disillusioned about the process.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced June 1 the government would likely select 10 to 15 winners in round two. But just 35 states, plus the District of Columbia, decided to compete for part of the remaining $3.4 billion in stimulus funds offered in the program.

“States have decided not to apply for round two of Race to the Top because they have begun to realize that the federal money they stand to gain is not worth the loss of educational autonomy,” said Lindsey Burke, an education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.

“Some states can’t get their necessary stakeholder buy-in, such as union support, others don’t want to give up local control, and many are downright uncomfortable with the idea of signing on to national standards,” Burke explained.

Kansas Saw Chances as Poor

Kansas is one of 15 states that have opted out of Race to the Top. Nine states didn’t participate in round one. The state’s poor showing in round one influenced the decision to bow out of round two, explained Kansas Interim Education Commissioner Diane DeBacker.

“The Kansas State Board of Education voted unanimously to not apply for phase two of the Race to the Top,” DeBacker said. “We were number 29 out of 41 applications. After reviewing the comments from the five reviewers and trying to predict our success on each component in a possible rewrite, the Board came to the conclusion that the State would not be competitive in [round two].

“At this time there is no word from the U.S. Department of Education as to whether or not there will be a [round] three,” DeBacker added. “As with any competitive grant, staff will consider applying once the guidelines are released.”

DeBacker says Kansas had no particular complaints about the grant application process, and she praised federal education officials for their guidance.

“Putting together the [first-round] application allowed staff to have in-depth discussions about the future of education in Kansas,” she said. “This resulted in 31 projects being forwarded in our application, and even though we were unsuccessful in obtaining the funds, we now have the framework for a strategic plan for Kansas.”

Texas Balks

Texas also decided to sit out round two, noting its application would likely face scoring penalties because of the Lone Star State’s refusal to commit to the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Duncan has said states should adopt the national curriculum frameworks by August in order to receive Race to the Top funding.

“This administration’s attempt to bait states into adopting national standards is an effort to undermine states’ authority to determine how their students are educated, and is clearly aimed at circumventing laws prohibiting national standards,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) said in a June 1 statement.

“Abandoning state standards and adopting new, nationalized standards would cost Texas taxpayers $3 billion and would likely weaken the rigorous college- and career-ready standards and assessments already in place in our state,” Perry said.

Texas’s Decision Praised

Texas and Alaska were the only two states not to participate in the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which the National Governors Association launched last year.

Michael Quinn Sullivan, president of Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, praised the decision to stay out of Race to the Top.

“The governor is right to refuse to participate in the federal government’s current push to take over our schools,” Sullivan said. “While some states are chasing federal funds at any cost, Texans are realizing that a federal takeover of education would mean weaker standards, decreased student performance, and higher taxes.”

Virginia: ‘We Just Can’t Do That’

Virginia officials cited concerns about national standards and losing local control in the decision to sit out round two. In addition, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) clashed with state teachers union officials, who refused to compromise on teacher tenure reforms.

“We’ve had a great set of standards here in Virginia for 15 years, and we think that common set of standards ought to be a floor, not a ceiling,” McDonnell said June 1 on Joe Scarborough’s Morning Joe show on MSNBC. McDonnell said adopting the Common Core State Standards Initiative “would require us to reduce the quality of Virginia standards, and we just can’t do that.”

Hidden Mandates

Burke says Virginia and Texas are avoiding hidden mandates in Race to the Top.

“Because of the limited requirements for states to lift caps on charter schools and consider performance pay, President Obama and Secretary Duncan are considered reform-minded,” she explained. “But when we peel back the layers of the Race to the Top onion just slightly, we find that right under the surface exists an agenda to significantly grow the federal government’s role in education through national standards and tests.

“National standards will not improve education and will fail to empower parents,” Burke added. “Instead of petitioning their local school boards for the changes in standards and tests, parents will now have to trek to Washington to discuss their child’s education with DC bureaucrats.”

The Department of Education is scheduled to announce winners of the second-round of Race to the Top in September.

Sarah McIntosh (mcintosh.sarah@gmail.com) teaches constitutional law and American politics at Wichita State University in Kansas.