Education Funding

Book: ‘Near Panic’ Over Race to Top

By Michele McNeil — August 26, 2011 1 min read
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Louisiana and Colorado, take heart: Senior staff members at the U.S. Department of Education really wanted you to win the Race to the Top. When the Round 2 scores came in last year, and your states were inexplicably left out of the winners’ circle, the staff was in a “near panic,” while U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was “surprised and upset.”

“There are problems. ... Big problems,” then-Race to the Top Director Joanne Weiss told Mr. Duncan when the scores came in, writes journalist Steven Brill (paraphrasing Ms. Weiss’ comments) in his new book, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools.

In the book, Mr. Brill, who is best known in education circles for exposing New York City’s “rubber rooms,” traces the evolution of education policy changes that have challenged the teachers’ unions, reshaped education politics in the Democratic Party, and sought to make data a crucial part of teacher evaluations.

The book has already created a splash, and sparked criticism.

Diane Ravitch, an education historian (and an Education Week opinion blogger), and Mr. Brill have squabbled over his characterization of her, specifically over whether she took speaking fees from unions. And the U.S. Department of Education and Jon Schnur, a former adviser to President Barack Obama and Mr. Duncan, say Mr. Schnur’s role in the nitty-gritty details of the Race to the Top competition, as portrayed in the book, was overblown.

In his book, Mr. Brill takes the reader inside private discussions senior-level Education Department staff had when the scores came in for the second round of the Race to the Top contest.

The Education Department staff chewed over whether Mr. Duncan should handpick the winners, choosing out of order and probably skipping Hawaii, whose high score was called “bizarre” by two senior staff members, and maybe New York, whose second-place finish was a “shocker.” (That option was quickly nixed.) Staff members debated whether to reduce funding drastically for each state so the awards could reach as far down as Louisiana and Colorado.

As it turned out, Mr. Duncan decided to stick with the top 10 scorers as determined by the outside peer reviewers.

A version of this article appeared in the August 31, 2011 edition of Education Week as Book: ‘Near Panic’ Over Race to Top

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