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Race to the Top: Still On? Or Off?

By Alyson Klein — December 22, 2010 2 min read
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Congress has sort of a settled the question of what should happen next with the federal budget: A more-than two-month freeze on all K-12 spending, not something many districts are likely to cheer about.

But, now that a much more GOPish Congress will get to decide next year’s spending levels, I’m wondering what will happen next for Race to the Top, the administration’s signature K-12 program, and the Investing in Innovation grant program. Both were created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided a $100 billion bonanza for education.

Both those competitive grant programs, especially Race to the Top, are closely associated with President Barack Obama. The president really wants to see it extended for another year. He put $1.35 billion in his budget request and was on track to get less than a third of that, $550 million, before a budget deal blew up and Congress decided to pass the temporary freeze instead.

So does Race to the Top get extended in the new Congress? Good question! And advocates are divided on the answer.

Some folks say that it’s unlikely because, in their minds, other than the administration, there aren’t many people rooting for this program, which created winners and losers among states. There are also folks in western and rural states who feel they weren’t given a fair shake to go after a grant.

And the new Congress has pledged to clamp down on spending in a big way, so if something has to go, wouldn’t it be a program that was at one time deemed “Arne’s Slush Fund”? After all, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan got to give away $4.35 billion in the first year of the program.

But other folks say that Race to the Top has support among some education-redesign-oriented members of Congress. For instance, Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn. introduced a bill to keep it going. And supporters say that it has gotten great results, spurring a number of states to rethink their laws on everything from merit pay to standards.

Maybe the biggest argument in Race to the Top’s favor? It’s clearly a key priority for the White House and, in the past at least, Congress has shown some deference to presidential preferences. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that top administration officials have called lawmakers directly to ask them to support more funding for Race to the Top.

The likelihood of a budget battle “certainly makes RTTT’s life harder,” one advocate said in an email. The advocate expects that the administration will ask Congress again for Race to the Top funds in its next budget requested. And they added, “there are Republicans that like the program (particularly those whose states won in round 1 or 2). So, I wouldn’t say it’s dead. It just might not have as easy a road ahead as it has had to this point.”

Another advocate guessed that i3 may not be as lucky, but suggested that the department could fund an i3-like competition out of money from the Fund for Innovation, a sort of slush fund that usually finances earmarks (which are out of fashion these days).

So what do you think? Race to the Top 2.0? Dead or alive?