By Sonja Ralston, a judicial law clerk to the Hon. Guido Calabresi of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Ralston taught bilingual first grade prior to law school, and has published several scholarly papers on education law.
On Tuesday, the federal Department of Education announced the winners of the final round of its Race to the Top program. Nine states and the District of Columbia join Delaware and Tennessee, which won the first round in April. All told, forty-six states and the District of Columbia competed for a share of the $4 billion in prize money to implement comprehensive education reform plans, making it the largest state-based "competitive, discretionary grant" - in short, prize - in national history.
Though prizes are not an entirely new means of governing (in 1714, Parliament established the Longitude Prize to develop accurate measures of longitude on the open water and awarded £100,000 over fifty years), the Obama administration has newly emphasized competitive grants. But even among the administration's prize programs, Race to the Top is special: unlike the Longitude Prize or the Department of Energy's prizes for energy-efficient light bulbs and better batteries, the goal is to spur policy rather than technological innovation. Therefore, it invites states rather than individuals, companies, universities, or cities to compete.
Race to the Top represents a new approach to federalism: one that strikes a better state/federal balance in substantive policymaking than traditional spending programs while simultaneously doing more to leverage the impact of federal dollars.