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Race to Top Runners-Up: Favorites and Underdogs

By Michele McNeil — September 12, 2011 3 min read
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When the scores came in for last year’s $3.4 billion Race to the Top competition, Education Secretary Arne Duncan was “surprised and upset” that Colorado and Louisiana had been left out of the winners’ circle.

Now, with a smaller $200 million in hand, this is Duncan’s chance to make it up to those two states.

Proposed rules released last week spell out how the nine finalists can get a piece of that smaller jackpot. And unlike the first two rounds of the competition, there will be no outside judges determining winners and losers. This time, it’s up to the department to pick.

That means there are clear favorites, and not-so-favorites. If you remember, the finalists that did not win were: Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina.

In addition to Colorado and Louisiana, it seems sensible to add Illinois to the favorites category. After all, Duncan praised the state in May for doing “something truly remarkable, and every state committed to education reform should take notice.” That was after the legislature passed a sweeping education bill to alter how teachers in the state are hired, evaluated, and granted tenure.

Now, for the underdogs. The department pretty much wrote South Carolina out of the competition, not that Superintendent of Education Mick Zais was going to apply anyway. To qualify for the money, states must have met the maintenance-of-effort requirements of the Education Jobs Fund program, which requires states to keep their own funding for K-12 and higher education at certain levels. This disqualifies South Carolina since the state couldn’t meet that requirement and did not end up with any Education Jobs money. Perhaps the department would rather have the upper-hand here, declaring the Palmetto State ineligible before Zais could even have a chance to officially say “no thanks.”

A second eligibility requirement could affect California, which is not a clear favorite either. States must satisfy the data-systems requirements that were part of the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (the $40 billion-plus pot of money to shore up state budgets from the 2009 economic-stimulus package). That includes having a system that allows officials to track individual student data alongside their individual teachers. This could be a problem for California if federal officials think the state isn’t making good on those promises.

In addition, the department is requiring states to implement a piece of their second-round proposal from last year to win the money, which seems to make sense. But that may turn off some states that have new governors, especially if they’re of a different political party. Pennsylvania, for example, didn’t seem interested in funding any part of its old application, which was written under a different governor.

If states don’t apply, either because they’re ineligible or because they don’t want to, that means more money for everyone else (including Louisiana and Colorado). So if California doesn’t apply, that’s $49 million added back to the pot. South Carolina’s ineligibility adds $12.25 million back to the pot. If Pennsylvania sits out, that’s $28 million for other states.

Of course, it’s important to note the remaining strings attached: that to qualify, any state must affirm that it will maintain the reform-y conditions it established as part of the round two competition. The proposed rules state:

We are further proposing to require that an eligible applicant provide a set of assurances reaffirming its commitment to maintain, at a minimum, the conditions for reform that it established in its Phase 2 application in each of the four core education reform areas. These assurances reflect the importance of the State's dedication to successfully implementing the comprehensive statewide reforms envisioned under the Race to the Top program."

In general, this means the state must keep any regulations or laws in place dealing with common standards (including maintaining involvement in the Common Core State Standards Initiative, or a similar initiative), charter schools, data systems, improving low-performing schools, and improving teacher effectiveness. That means if a state backtracks on something it put in place last year to win the big grant, it probably won’t qualify for this smaller grant.

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