Society and Culture, Education

Inflated Expectations and the Race to the Top

With the release of final Race to the Top documents, reporters from local papers asked the obvious question: “Is our state positioned to win?”

The resulting spate of articles has been extremely edifying. The most interesting commonality is that most state leaders believe their states are in great shape to get a grant—occasionally in open defiance of countervailing evidence—even though Education Secretary Arne Duncan has made clear that few states will actually win.

The biggest gaps between expectations and reality might be in Maryland and Ohio. Maryland’s Governor Martin O’Malley said, “we’re in a very strong position to go after those Race to the Top grants.” A Baltimore Sun report, however, made clear that the state was far behind. Its editorial board went farther, excoriating state policy makers, saying the state was “limping along at a snail’s pace compared to the rest of the pack”; that Gov. O’Malley “hasn’t lifted a finger to remove the legislative roadblocks that put Maryland at a competitive disadvantage”; that the governor and state superintendent have demonstrated a “blasé attitude” and don’t “seem to understand that none of the groundwork is in place for a successful proposal.”

Ohio’s Gov. Ted Strickland “is bullish on the state’s chances.” His spokeswoman said, “Ohio is ‘one of the strongest-positioned states.’” But the Thomas B. Fordham Institute isn’t as optimistic. Their analysis released Thursday concluded: “Ohio today is not as well-positioned for dollars as many lawmakers, educators and others are claiming.”

Meanwhile, Florida is so convinced of its position that Education Commissioner Eric Smith “said it looks like the state could end up asking the federal government for $1 billion.” (That’s three to four times more than the feds have in mind.) Arizona’s “top school official said the state has an excellent chance of snagging a share of $4 billion in new federal education grants.” “Delaware Education Secretary Lillian Lowery thinks the state is in a good position to win a grant.” Indiana’s “state superintendent says it deserves (to win) because of recent changes lawmakers made to education policies … ‘Our reform efforts already under way closely mirror the pillars of ‘Race to the Top.’” Minnesota is confident. “There’s a pretty good chance of the state getting the money.”

A few states, however, are more circumspect.

Colorado isn’t bragging; they’ve just been working hard. Missouri is making no promises but the state “will gather about 300 people … to begin shaping Missouri’s bid for the federal dollars.” Alabama realizes its fate may hang on its decision on allowing charter schools. Michigan, to its credit, realizes that it needs to make some changes if it wants to compete. The state superintendent said bluntly, “we have to have a number of pieces of legislation or we will not win Race to the Top.”

I’m curious whether these leaders really believe that their states are going to win or if this is just political strategy to buy time, calm waters, and keep opponents at bay?

More importantly, the Department of Education could extract more reforms out of states by making use of these results. For example, they might confirm Michigan’s concerns and make officials in Maryland and Ohio aware that their expectations are inflated. They also might want to consistently reiterate over the next two months (until applications are due) that there is a long list of confident states, so the bar is high. The only way to help your cause, they might repeat, is to pass reform-oriented laws and develop a very bold proposal.

It would be a shame if states, thinking they were well-positioned, submitted weak proposals that might have been improved had they received some not-so-subtle nudges.

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