Congressional conservatives have made it hard to get much done these past few years. This has led to a series of creative workarounds by the Obama administration, including the Race to the Top grant competition five years ago which in part took the place of passing new education legislation. I’m less than thrilled with the program which led to many states agreeing to significant policy changes but only funded a few of those efforts.
Minnesota was not one of the major grant recipients although we did get a smaller Early Learning Challenge Grant in 2011. Five years after Race to the Top, the twelve states receiving the “big” grants (amounting to about one percent of their total education budgets) have spent much of the money. Major priorities include teacher evaluation systems, Common Core adoption and implementation, and beefing up science, math, and technology options.
The federal Department of Education’s Race to the Top priorities meshed in many ways with its conditions for receiving a waiver from No Child Left Behind (NCLB). Together, these two policies sparked a wave of teacher evaluation systems that place more weight on test scores and fed an image of the Common Core as a federal program (even though it was initiated by foundations and the states). If you like analogies, Race to the Top was the carrots and the NCLB waiver process was the stick.
As the carrots run low, the Department of Education is left with the stick although they haven’t threatened most states’ NCLB waivers. It’s a make-do approach to policymaking that has encouraged the rapid adoption of several policies, many of which have struggled as they move to implementation. With a new administration taking over after the 2016 elections, it seems likely that the new President and Secretary of Education will continue to use the waiver process and perhaps the occasional grant competition as a way of promoting their policies. This is especially likely if conservatives continue to choke Congress’ ability to function. Were a conservative policy activist such as Michele Bachmann or Scott Walker become the Secretary of Education, the likely result would not be pretty.
The Race to the Top experiment has shown both the power of competitive grants to provoke policy change and the limitations of those grants in ensuring high-quality implementation. We would be better served by actual education policy set in law.