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Creative Race to the Top Lawmaking

By Michele McNeil — December 18, 2009 1 min read

Being the federal education policy nerd that I am, I’m wading through a 367-page transcript of the technical assistance planning seminar the U.S. Department of Education held in Denver to help states understand the Race to the Top competition.

Since I attended a similar seminar in Baltimore, many of the questions were predictable.

However, I came upon one question that was particularly interesting, and foreshadowed a creative lawmaking strategy that state legislators may use to make their states more competitive for Race to the Top, but only if they win Race to the Top. The question came from Rick Miller, a deputy state education superintendent in California, and was answered by Race to the Top Director Joanne Weiss.

Q: If our Legislature adopted [academic] standards through a bill but said, contingent on getting Race to the Top funding -- and you can really say that for anything -- how would that impact our -- the application? A: So we did get this question from somebody sent to our e-mail line. And we will be putting out an answer to it in the frequently asked questions notice. I guess you asking it makes it now frequent. Now we have -- so, yes, we need to just sort of get back to you with an answer to this question of what if something is passed contingent on an award. So we'll get back to you with an answer to that question. Clearly, though, I want to put in a commercial for saying we hope that what we're incenting people to do is the right thing, whether or not they win an award. So that would be our official hope.

For extremely contentious issues, such as teacher tenure or merit pay proposals, making any legislation contingent on winning a grant could make it a much easier sell for state lawmakers. What’s more, it will be interesting to see if any states make new laws contingent not just on winning an award, but winning an award of a certain amount.

This is clearly problematic for the department, which is using Race to the Top as leverage to try to convince as many states as possible to make dramatic education reform changes. The question is whether any states will actually pursue this strategy, and if peer reviewers will award fewer points for laws contingent on winning.

UPDATE: The department just published a new Race to the Top FAQs document, in which the first question is exactly on this point. Effectively, the department says it cannot predict how peer reviewers will judge such laws.