The Race to the Top fund (RTTT) was initiated in 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The brainchild of President Barack Obama and education secretary Arne Duncan, Race to the Top was formulated as a contest in which states could compete for extra federal grant money to fund their schools in the midst of the Recession.
Determined to avoid the pitfalls of President Bush’s education initiative, No Child Left Behind, the Obama administration stated that RTTT was “designed to spur systemic reform and embrace innovative approaches to teaching and learning in America’s schools.”
In order to have a chance at part of the $4.35 billion RTTT grant, each state was required to submit an application explaining their plans for reform. Favorable reforms included the adoption of standards and assessments, plans for academic achievement gains, and plans for acquiring and keeping good teachers.
The competition enjoyed some bipartisan support, and as a result, many state legislatures quickly passed a variety of school reform legislation in order to have a chance at the grant money. Legislation was often charter school friendly and also tied teacher evaluations to student achievement.
In all, forty states plus the District of Columbia ended up applying for the contest. Of these, only two – Delaware and Tennessee – won the first round.
These results were a bit of a surprise, particularly since other states besides these two seemed to have a stronger education reform plan. This raised accusations of the judging process being more subjective and political than it was made out to be, especially since some of the winning applications were heavier on support from teacher unions than they were on serious academic reform. States which didn’t win were encouraged to reapply, and eventually 10 more states collected prize money.
Although support for RTTT was initially favorable, opinions on the subject began to sour even before the grants were awarded. Some states dropped out of the competition because it was too hard to get unions and legislatures to agree to a plan. The state of Texas refused to take part in the competition, declaring that the grant was so small that any money the state might win would not even cover implementation costs.
A major objection to RTTT, however, was the fact that it would bring more federal government involvement into education, an area normally overseen by individual states. The encouragement to adopt academic standards - such as the Common Core curriculum - to gain points for the contest especially appears to usurp local education decisions. As the National Education Association protestingly noted, this type of “top-down approach” to education had been tried before and failed miserably.
Several years after the initial RTTT contest, the U.S. Department of Education announced a new form of the program, this time aimed directly at local school districts. To some individuals, this fact simply underscored the idea of federal government overreach in local education.
The hopes and fears for Race to the Top will probably not be fully realized until program implementation is complete and the results have been studied. Small glimpses along the way, however, show a mixed bag. On the one hand, some states are successfully implementing their goals and reform efforts. On the other hand, some states are finding that their plans were far too ambitious to implement and too contentious to gain broad support.
An official study has been commissioned on the effects of RTTT (to the tune of nearly $20 million) and will be released in 2015. This library section provides a variety of commentary pieces and other documents to enable you to form your own verdict on the Race to the Top program.