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.
In terms of the balance of policymaking, Race to the Top puts more power in the hands of states than other federal education programs. Overall, the federal government provides around 10 percent of K-12 public education spending each year, but that funding is overwhelmingly concentrated in two areas: aid to high-poverty school districts under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) and aid to school districts for the education of students with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In each of these block grant programs, Congress, not the states, decides how the money will be spent. For example, IDEA sets very specific standards for what counts as a disability, how students with disabilities must be accommodated in schools, and what procedures schools must follow.
In contrast, Race to the Top gives states greater discretion over how to spend the funds. Fifty percent of any Race to the Top award can be distributed as the state sees fit, within guidelines that are so loose that a state could comply by spending the money on essentially any education program. Additionally, the 500-point rubric for awarding Race to the Top grants has dozens of subcategories, allowing states to pick what reform issues to focus on. As a result, each state's application proposes a different approach to improving education. Race to the Top thus gives real meaning to the cliché, "laboratories of democracy."
Under Race to the Top, states, not the federal government, set policy even when uniformity is important, as it is for learning standards. Under the Race to the Top rubric, a state received up to 40 points for joining "a consortium of States that . . . develop[s] and adopt[s] a common set of K-12 standards." The federal Department of Education did not write the standards; it didn't even establish the group that wrote the standards. The National Governors' Association took the lead, starting last summer, and published the Common Core Standards this June, which forty-eight states (and the District of Columbia) helped develop and thirty-five (and the District) have already adopted.
Prizes also have the potential to leverage federal dollars. Consider the now-familiar Ansari X Prize. It awarded $10 million to the company that first produced a private manned spacecraft, whereas competitors spent over $100 million. The $4 billion the federal government is spending on Race to the Top is only around 25 percent of what it spends every year on Title I. Yet unlike other small programs, which are pilot projects only implemented in a small percentage of schools or districts, the process of merely applying for Race to the Top led to changes in the laws of nearly every state, from lifting caps on the number of charter schools to eliminating data firewalls.
Race to the Top gives the federal government more bang for its buck than most education spending. Unlike, for example, Title I (a block grant program the Department of Education administers according to a congressional formula), Race to the Top is a discretionary - and therefore flexible - funding program. Funds are awarded by the agency, not by Congress, so there's no push for pork, the program need not spend a proportionate amount in every state, and it is not the kind of block-grant pre-requisite that might lead to contentious congressional votes - like when attempts to add national standards to annual ESEA funding were repeatedly defeated.
Finally, Race to the Top is special because its competitors are states - and only states. This focus on states in the first two rounds has policy benefits: making the states the competitors is the most direct way to prod states to change course on alternative school structures like charters or autonomous schools, teacher tenure, and standards. But it also embraces a larger virtue: federalism. By giving the states real choices about how to accomplish federal policy priorities rather than just making them administrative go-betweens that cut checks and write reports, Race to the Top reaffirms states' status as sovereigns with authority over - and responsibility for - their citizens' welfare.
At a moment when the public is increasingly concerned about reasserting state authority (including by calling for the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment), less radical ways to give states greater autonomy deserve attention. The so-far success of Race to the Top shows that prizes can spur policy innovation, especially in fields in which it is easier to agree on ideal outcomes (like having all children learn) than on how to reach those goals.