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Senators Consider Codifying Race to the Top in ESEA

By Alyson Klein — October 10, 2011 2 min read
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The Race may be on for a while longer.

Race to the Top, the competitive grant program first created under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, would become an authorized part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, under a draft of Senate education leaders’ reauthorization proposal circulating around Washington.

So far, states have split a total of $4 billion in Race to the Top grants, which further some of the Obama administration’s top school reform priorities The draft language would allow grants to go to high-need districts in addition to states, and also to groups of states, or groups of high-need districts.

The U.S. Secretary of Education would be allowed to use the program to encourage states and districts to:

• Boost low-income children’s access to high-quality teachers (including making sure that teachers are equipped to serve the needs of English-language learners and students in special education).

• Improve data systems.

• Turn around low-performing schools.

• Create successful conditions for the replication of high-quality charters and autonomous public schools.

• Improve school-readiness by expanding and bolstering early-learning programs.

Those goals are all pretty similar to current law. And, as under the current Race to the Top competition, at least half the money would go to districts.

Of course, this proposal is just a draft of what could eventually become a bipartisan ESEA proposal, introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. Sen. Harkin has been negotiating on ESEA for months with Sen. Michael B. Enzi, the top Republican on the committee.

The draft language, which is still under discussion, could be made public as early as tomorrow. But lots of aspects (including the Race to the Top section) could change by then.

The Race to the Top language is one key difference between the draft language and a bill introduced by U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.

Politics K-12 Analysis:Although nearly every state wanted a piece of the initial round of Race to the Top funding, the program has faced congressional criticism.

It’s interesting to note that, in its current form at least, Race to the Top gives a lot of discretion to the secretary of education. That makes me wonder how the 2012 presidential election (which means we don’t know just who the secretary will be after next year, particularly if the GOP wins) could complicate efforts to reauthorize the program. Lawmakers who support Race to the Top as it has been operating so far will have to decide for themselves if there’s enough specificity in the final bill (whenever it is marked-up) that they could trust, say, Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s secretary of education to carry the program through.

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