First Race to the Top Test is How Few States Win Money for Real Reform

There’s been plenty of debate — here in Colorado, more than in most states — about the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top (RTT) $5 billion grant funding program. On the surface it sounds really good, promoting some commonsense and effective reforms that in many cases should have been enacted years ago. To some extent, it may actually yield positive results.

But now that 40 states have participated in the first round of applications (and Colorado opted for the safe “consensus” approach), we soon will find out whether the faith in RTT is justified. As the editors of the Wall Street Journal note, the first big test will be to see how selective the grant process actually is (H/T Frederick Hess):

It’s been reported that Mr. Duncan may reward as many as a dozen states in the first round. A state like California in that scenario could receive between $350 million and $700 million. That may seem like a lot of money, until you consider that California’s K-12 education budget shortfall next year is expected to be between $5 billion and $10 billion.

Money is fungible, and a few hundred million extra from the feds is likely to go toward filling budget gaps, not advancing reform. If Mr. Duncan wants to increase the chances that stand-out school districts and administrators will have the political cover to build on their success, awarding more money to fewer states is the better option.

Even the Obama administration supporter Eduwonk gets that “there is a number between zero and somewhere in the low-single digits that will indicate seriousness in terms of the number of states that win.” Heck, I’m a little kid, and I know how silly the “everybody is a winner” self-esteem line is. Given all the bureaucratic inertia states face, giving smaller prizes to more states will just make it that much harder to create real positive lasting change.

Frankly, I’m not sure that Colorado deserves its share of the prize. If we are to take RTT seriously, only the very few best applications should be rewarded.