With Sprinkles Please

Topics: Education Policy

The President released his 2015 budget request today. In that budget request is yet another iteration of the Race to the Top (RTTT) program as reported by Education Week’s Politics K-12 Blog. My first reaction to this announcement is captured in my tweet below:

@MattAWilliams Tweet Why did I tweet this? First, I, for the record, really like ice cream.

Secondly and much more importantly, let’s look back at the history of the RTTT. It was first created as a major education component of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. It was a $4.35B program that focused on comprehensive, systemic educational change including such areas as standards and assessments, teachers and leaders, turning around the lowest-achieving schools, and data systems. The first three rounds of the state competition netted 19 states’ awards ranging from $700M to $17M. By Round 3 the funding totals had dropped significantly.  As the money dwindled there was an Early Learning Challenge grant added to the suite of RTTT offerings and then a Race to the Top-District (RTTT-D). After RTTT-D there was a proposal by the Administration for a $1B Higher Education RTTT that was changed by Congress into a $250M RTTT program focused on early education. Now, in the FY15 budget the Administration is pushing for a $300M RTTT program focused on educational equity for disadvantaged students along with a teacher-equity component.

It is important to pause for a moment. First, I firmly support early education, district level innovation, and, of course, educational equity. I believe that the higher education system needs reform. I also liked the thrust of the first, original flavor, if you will, of RTTT. These are all very important issues. But the obsession with RTTT and all its iterations is a great exemplar for the Administration’s larger education policy agenda. It is disjointed and tries to tackle a plethora of educational issues with relatively small amounts of money. Will there truly be a systemic impact from the RTTT-D program? What about the new early education RTTT? Wouldn’t a better way to provide greater educational equity be to fund Title I or IDEA at greater levels? Maybe re-scope and improve the School Improvement Grants (SIG)? I’ve blogged about this issue in the past the Administration would be well served to have focused on a few key issues, made them a priority for both funding and the bully pulpit, and then been able to point to impact and best practices. Culling best practices and impact data is of significant importance in a time where ESEA is not moving in Congress and waivers are effectively the law of the land.

Look, I get the political prominence RTTT holds for this Administration. I get this is the Administration’s signature program and its legacy level importance when telling the full story of the Obama Presidency.  However, instead of focus and priorities, we have what amounts to a bowl of melted neapolitan ice cream that is merely being dressed up with whipped cream and sprinkles.