Friday, January 22, 2010

How to make a little education reform money go a long way.

A long editorial in today's WSJ about Race to the Top, correctly warning against spreading the money too thinly and rewarding states that don't deserve it – a mistake I'm confident the Obama administration won't make:

The big education story these days is the state competition for some $4.35 billion in Race to the Top grants to be passed out by Education Secretary Arne Duncan. President Obama said this week he'll seek an additional $1.35 billion for the program for next year, but more important than the amount is whether Mr. Duncan really wants to race to the top, or just the mediocre middle.

Forty states met the application deadline on Tuesday, and the grants will be awarded in two rounds, in April and June. To qualify, Mr. Duncan said states had to, among other things, lift caps on charter schools and remove barriers to using student records to identify good teachers and reward them. He's also said that "there will be a lot more losers than winners."

That's a good sign, but Mr. Duncan will be tempted to give more states less money in order to minimize political blow back and in the name of getting all states to make at least some, minimal progress. This is the Lake Wobegon school of education reform, where every state is above average. There will also be pressure to make sure that the winners include states with a mix of GOP and Democratic governors.

It's been reported that Mr. Duncan may reward as many as a dozen states in the first round. A state like California in that scenario could receive between $350 million and $700 million. That may seem like a lot of money, until you consider that California's K-12 education budget shortfall next year is expected to be between $5 billion and $10 billion.

Money is fungible, and a few hundred million extra from the feds is likely to go toward filling budget gaps, not advancing reform. If Mr. Duncan wants to increase the chances that stand-out school districts and administrators will have the political cover to build on their success, awarding more money to fewer states is the better option.


Race to the Middle?

How to make a little education reform money go a long way.

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