Farewell to 2010, the Year of Race to the Top

By Sean Cavanagh — December 30, 2010 3 min read
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There are a lot of ways you could rank the top state education stories of the year, none of them perfect. But basing my list on a combination of the most widely read stories on State EdWatch, and a healthy amount of blogger discretion, I’ll go ahead and declare 2010 The Year of Race to the Top.

1. Race to the Top
Love it or loathe it, the federal Race to the Top program drove education policy at the state level in myriad ways. In some respects the $4.35 billion competition, part of the federal economic-stimulus package, was put before states at the perfect time for it to have an impact—and by that I mean a desperate time in state capitols. Since the recession began in late 2007, states have been hemoragging money and trying to stave off cuts to K-12. The prospect of securing hundreds of millions of dollars to experiment with schools was, for the vast majority of states, too much to resist.

Actually, I’d say Race to the Top was several stories rolled into one:

  • State action, and lots of it: Thirty-four states adopted new education laws or policies in an effort to better position themselves for the competition, by the Obama administration’s count. You might not like those laws and policies—on merit pay, charters, and so on—but there’s little doubt Race to the Top pushed them along.
  • Celebration and second-guessing: Almost as soon as winners in both rounds were announced, critics said department of education reviewers had blown it. A lot of folks wanted to see Louisiana and Colorado in the winner’s circle, as a reward for having made far-reaching changes to ed policy.
  • The agony of defeat: A lot of losing states were stuck wondering what they might have done differently. In Alabama, the governor blamed lack of union buy-in. Others disagreed.
  • The $400 million goof: A error on New Jersey’s application may have prevented the state from winning. Republican Gov. Chris Christie initially blamed the Obama administration for alleged bureaucratic inflexibility; then a video of the state’s interview with the feds appeared to contradict some of the governor’s claims. Christie ended up firing his ed commissioner, Bret Schundler, in the wake of the controversy, who disputed the governor’s version of events.
  • The proud holdouts: Just four states opted not to make the dash for federal dollars. One of them was Texas, where Republican governor Rick Perry railed against the program at every step of the way, calling it federal heavy-handedness.

2. The Republican Surge
It was a horrible year to be a Democratic state officeholder. GOP candidates made major gains across the country, taking control of 29 governors’ offices and 57 state legislative chambers. Republicans now hold more legislative seats than anytime since the 1920s. Newly elected candidates have vowed to pursue new policies in school choice, cutting spending and other areas.

3. Bad Budgets
Did you know the “Great Recession” officially ended in June of 2009? (Yeah, right!) Heading into fiscal 2011, at least 46 states faced budget shortfalls. Many state and local officials expect more pain to come in the years ahead for education budgets, partly because schools tend to lag behind other sectors of the economy in recovering from economic downturns.

4. Turning Around Schools
States forged ahead with plans to turn around low-performing schools. As Ed Week explained earlier this year, many schools chose an option known as “transformation,” generally regarded as the least-disruptive and most politically palatable, as their turnaround strategy. The U.S. Department of Education is touting rural schools’ participation, despite some initial worries that those schools wouldn’t take part.

That’s my list. I’ll bet you have your own. What did I miss?

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.