When Congress approved Race to the Top as part of the federal economic-stimulus package in 2009, it created a $4 billion fund states could tap—if they put together winning competitive-grant applications.
At the time, the recession was at its worst. Desperate for an injection of cash, states scrambled to draft applications that reviewers for the U.S. Department of Education would deem worthy. But most states lacked the expertise or capacity to craft a strong proposal themselves, so they hired consulting firms to do it for them.
“It was a huge influx of dollars that states were able to chase,” said Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank. “It created a need for consultants to figure out how to write the application and gather all the required materials.”
Tennessee hired Seattle-based Education First Consulting to help design its Race to the Top application, which eventually netted the state a $500 million award, but its state department of education and governor’s office played a more significant role in the process than did those in many other states.
Race to the Top competitor New Jersey, for example, paid Wireless Generation, a New York City-based company, more than $500,000 to craft what ultimately were two failed bids for a grant.
Philanthropic organizations that supported the policies the competition encouraged also got in on the action. Nine of the 12 winning applicants were given $250,000 each by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support the crafting of their proposals.
“It also meant that a lot of what got proposed wasn’t necessarily anything states were truly excited about, but something that consultants told them would play well in Washington,” said Mr. Hess, who writes an opinion blog for Education Week‘s website.
Applications that played well in the nation’s capital were those that most closely aligned with the Obama administration’s education agenda—a market-based approach that favored tougher, common academic standards, the elimination of charter school caps, revamped teacher-evaluation and -compensation models tied to student test scores, and state-of-the-art data systems to track student progress.
But state education departments had already been struggling under the mandates of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. Suddenly, they were asked to promise to implement new policies, some of which they had no experience with. Applications flooded in with proposals to partner with foundations and other nonprofit organizations.
All but three Race to the Top-winning states referenced the Gates Foundation in their applications. Tennessee’s also outlined a partnership with Battelle Memorial Institute to plan its entire science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, programs.
Tennessee also leaned heavily on the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, a Nashville-based nonprofit founded by former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn. Specifically, SCORE organized a coalition to educate parents about the Common Core State Standards and the lower test scores that would likely result when Tennessee adopted new tests aligned with the tougher standards. It also helped the state with research and stakeholder engagement regarding the new teacher- and principal-evaluation systems.
Contracting with nonprofits and philanthropic organizations isn’t a new idea in education. But Race to the Top made more money available for such partnerships and types of initiatives than ever before. The budget overview in Tennessee’s Race to the Top application set aside $134.3 million for contractual purposes, second only to the amount available to districts as subgrants, which accounted for half the $500 million pot.
The swift application process, combined with the short timeline states had to complete several difficult policy overhauls, left many local education leaders feeling pushed aside.
“They just came in and did everything,” Keith Williams, the president of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, said of such outside players. “We didn’t even know who they were, but they were hiring and firing, … setting policy, and determining salary schedules.”
Mr. Williams said that collaboration with the various players was productive at the beginning, but that the partnership aspect was short-lived.
“It has been like trying to fight a giant,” he said. “These people would come in with connections from the top, and we were just amazed at the reach of power that they had.”
Tennessee Commissioner Kevin Huffman rejected that assertion in an interview, but has himself recently been attacked as having a brash, non-inclusive leadership style.
Mr. Williams’ account is particularly troubling for critics of the Obama administration’s education priorities, who argue that many of what they see as corporate-style education policies asked of states through Race to the Top, and later the NCLB waiver program, have yet to be fruitful.
A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as Cash Drew Contractor Expertise—and Controversy