Social Reform in Education: the Skinny on Race to the Top

27 Feb

Race to the Top. These words have infiltrated the news, our schools, the president’s speeches, and created controversy across America. In homes, high schools, universities, and political sessions, Race to the Top is a hot topic. Scalding hot.

As part of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), a State Fiscal Stabilization Fund was established to help improve public charters, high schools, and universities. Let’s consider the numbers of the fund for just a moment.

The total monies of the fund amounted to $53.6 BILLION. Out of the $53.6 BILLION, roughly $48 billion of the money was given to state governors. The remaining $5 billion was allocated for what the public knows as “Race to the Top”. Enter the controversy.

Race to the Top involves states entering a contest with certain regulations to compete for the federal money. Some of the regulations include loosening restrictions on charter schools. Others involve developing rigorous statewide academic standards local education agencies (LEA’s) agree upon. The main tenet of Race to the Top is that states ambitiously pursue “bold” reform. Arne Duncan (Secretary of Education) states that bold reform is individualized; for each state, reform will look different. He encourages the reform being taken down to a local level.

However, states must also work within regulations set by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), also known as No Child Left Behind. While NCLB is set to be restructured by the Obama administration, the restructuring has not yet occurred. This means that states are passing new “bold” reforms based upon outdated, failed legislature.

States worked to create programs and reforms that they hoped would earn them the prize money. Unfortunately, only 12 of 40 states who entered the Race to the Top contest could win a piece of the $5 billion pie. This has led to a complication for many states, as they are unable to fulfill the ambitious promises in their grants without the federal funding (see “Losing States in Race to Top Scramble to Meet Promises.”)

Although the contest has finished and winners have been chosen (based upon a scoring rubric), Obama has recently called for $900 million to extend the program in 2012.

Is this a good idea?

The answers are mixed. While regulations surrounding Race to the Top can seem incentivized toward particular political education agendas (charter schools, merit pay, etc), the competition has also spurred on some of the best state debates on education in years. School administrators, district boards, teachers, and state political leaders are coming together to collaborate new strategies and ideas on how best to improve the public schools. Many of the states who did not receive grant money through Race to the Top still want to implement the newly-created reforms.

However, some say the reforms are not moving in the right direction:

“Experimentation on children with unproven fads is not ‘innovation,’ ” said PAA founding member Caroline Grannan of San Francisco. “We need reforms that have been proven to work, like smaller classes, encouraging parent involvement, and meaningful assessment instead of battering our children with endless bubble-in tests. Parents want reforms that improve schools rather than weakening them” (Source:

The fact remains that public education needs reformation. While reforms should not be based upon outdated legislature or an unproven model of education, heated debates on education reform are good. If we can rise to the challenge of intelligent thinking, we can only move toward positive change.

And for those of you who were wondering if Michigan received any of that $48 billion dollars allocated for state governors…

U.S. Department of Education State Fiscal Stabilization Fund (SFSF)

As of June 3, 2009, Michigan had received almost $1.1 billion (67 percent) of its total SFSF allocation of $1.6 billion. According to state officials, the state legislature passed a supplemental appropriations bill for SFSF funds on June 25, 2009, that if signed by the Governor will provide authority for obligation of SFSF funds to local education agencies (LEA); as of June 30, 2009, the Governor had not signed the legislation and no funds had been obligated. Michigan plans to use these funds to help fill its budget shortfalls. State education officials said LEAs plan to use SFSF monies to help reduce teacher layoffs and address cuts in state education programs resulting from budget shortfalls. For example, Detroit Public Schools officials said they planned to use their funds to retain teachers and staff and avoid layoffs (Source:

So much for avoiding a catastrophe. See A Near Impossible Task: Saving the Detroit Public Schools District.


One Response to “Social Reform in Education: the Skinny on Race to the Top”

  1. Brickhouse February 27, 2011 at 10:55 pm #

    I completely agree with the quoted statement. I see Race to the Top as being more harmful than helpful unless large reformation is made within NCLB. The fact that Race to the Top does a lot to promote charter schools is also very troubling to me. While there have been exemplary models of how charters (the high school in Chicago that 2 years straight has sent their entire senior class to college), the unspoken stories of charters that open and close every year or even worse stay open with no measurable success draining resources from the already underfunded public schools.

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