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Are There Faint Echoes of Race to the Top in Democratic Candidates’ Plans?

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 10, 2019 6 min read
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Click here for our interactive guide to where the 2020 presidential candidates stand on education issues.

Among both liberals and conservatives, the Obama-era Race to the Top state grants became (rightly or wrongly) central to allegations that President Barack Obama and his education team used the $4.4 billion in competitive grants to strong-arm states into adopting policies about content standards and accountability that didn’t have local buy-in and caused more harm than good. Indeed, when Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, it rebuked Race to the Top in key ways, such as through ESSA’s prohibition on the federal government getting involved in teacher evaluations.

So given all that, are there any similarities between Race to the Top—which was part of the 2009 federal stimulus—and what Democratic presidential hopefuls say they have planned for K-12 education?

Short answer: If you squint, maybe you’ll see faint outlines of it. Several candidates want to create funding incentives for states to address key policy areas. But in the universe of federal grants, that was hardly a unique feature of Race to the Top. And the focus of their incentives has changed significantly from a decade ago when Race to the Top got off the ground. Instead of accountability and major plans to turn around struggling schools, there’s now a lot more talk about issues such as teacher pay, equitable funding systems, and factors beyond the school walls. So there’s not a lot of overlap.

Let’s go on an in-depth, but not necessarily comprehensive, scavenger hunt in candidates’ plan to see if we can find traces and scraps of Race to the Top.

‘Think Critically and Solve Problems’

  • Sen. Michael Bennet’s education platform in his quest for the White House includes “Regional Opportunity Compacts.” Supported by $10 billion in federal grants over five years, up to 500 of these compacts would “connect the dots between what is taught in schools, what skills local employers need, and how we support students so they can enter the workforce prepared and participate in society as informed citizens.” So, pretty broad. But there are also a set of goals embedded in the grants that participants would have to agree to shoot for. Some of them are vague, like having students who “can think critically and solve problems.” Others are more specific: that can read by grade 3, can enter postsecondary education without needing remediation, and can demonstrate proficiency in math and reading by grade 8.

Those specific targets are the kind of goals that could drive significant—and controversial—changes to instruction and how schools hold themselves and are held accountable, which is what Race to the Top had in mind. But among other differences, Bennet’s compacts would bring in several elements of the community, whereas Race to the Top had a pretty tight focus on schools. Bennet, a former Denver schools superintendent, worked in the Senate to support Obama’s education agenda.

  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s education platform for K-12 includes “Progress Partnerships” that would provide additional resources to states if they agreed to do things, or could show they had already done things, like create an equitable system of funding K-12 and increasing teacher pay. One item that stands out on that list is the idea that states would “adapt high school curricula to improve workforce readiness and postsecondary success.” (There’s no dollar figure attached to her proposal.)

It’s unclear how a Klobuchar administration would determine if revamped curricula succeeded—maybe through things like test scores? Those are benchmarks the Obama administration, and many others, might have approved of. But those are not the most fashionable benchmarks in the Democratic Party at the moment.

‘Family Friendly Schools’

Let’s now focus on something that is fashionable among Democratic presidential candidates: proposing to raise teacher pay.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., has a plan to raise teacher pay that would raise a teacher’s annual salary by $13,500. But a Harris administration wouldn’t just dole out the cash willy-nilly to make that happen. It would work with each state to set a target goal for teacher pay. Then the federal government would provide 10 percent of the cost up front. After that, for every $1 the state contributed toward making that goal, the feds would kick in $3. Harris’ plan doesn’t mention that there would be a limited pot of money, although many states might decline to participate.
  • Setting a national minimum teacher salary of $60,000 is the highlight of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ plan to address educator pay. The Vermont independent’s platform says he would “work with states” to make this figure a reality, but doesn’t say how; grants aren’t mentioned per se. A more concrete part of his platform around educator compensation doesn’t involve incentivized funding or grants: He wants to triple the tax deduction teachers can take for spending money on their classrooms from $250 to $750.
  • When Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., unveiled her K-12 plan a few weeks ago, she did not set a floor for teacher salaries or an average salary increase. She says her plan to quadruple Title I aid will help teachers’ salaries. And she wants to change federal law so that teachers can organize and collectively bargain in every state. That’s quite a different tenor from Race to the Top’s approach. There’s no financial incentive, competitive or otherwise, attached to these ideas.

Merit paywasa feature of Race to the Top—Tennessee included it in its teacher evaluation plan, for example. So it’s not as if states’ plans for Race to the Top had nothing to say about teacher pay. Yet that’s quite different from the sweeping proposals from the trio of Democratic senators and Castro. They don’t mention limited pots of money, and they don’t tie pay to evaluations.

Related topic: Harris just released another grant proposal, in the form of a Senate bill, to create 500 “Family Friendly Schools” using five-year grants of up to $5 million. These would help schools provide a range of academic and other enrichment activities; they’re also designed to shift these schools’ schedules so that they align with those of working parents. What Harris is proposing, which in some cases might involve paying educators more, could in many cases cost more for schools to achieve than what the grants alone provide.

The Race to the Top grant competition, initially for states, eventually expanded to districts (as well as early-learning programs). So there’s at least one parallel between those grants and the proposals for individual schools and communities from Harris and Bennet, for example. But it’s not a big one.

One final point: More than a decade ago, Joanne Weiss, the U.S. Department of Education’s director of Race to the Top, wrote an opinion piece for Education Week about the program’s goals. Among other things, she wrote, “No system is stronger than its weakest link, and for too long we have sat complacently as our lowest-performing elementary and secondary schools failed our students, year after year.” While she wrote that the teaching field should attract better talent and that teachers should be supported, Weiss focused on teacher preparation, credentialing, and effectiveness, with the latter helping to determine teacher “compensation.”

In 2019, the rhetoric has sharply shifted. There’s a lot more talk about addressing factors beyond schools, such as segregated neighborhoods, the adult workforce, and housing costs. And for many Democrats, an underfunded system has failed teachers as well as students. Instead of being informed by big-ticket policies around student performance and accountability, teacher pay—or more specifically increasing teacher pay—is the policy goal for several of the top candidates.

Whether any of the candidates can make their own big visions for public schools a reality, like Race to the Top, remains to be seen.

Photo: President Barack Obama shakes hands with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the White House in October 2016, where the president announced that Duncan would be stepping down. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

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