Competitive Grant Making and Education Reform
Assessing Race to the Top's Current Impact and Future Prospects

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October 2010

Executive Summary

During President Barack Obama's first two years in office, the administration's signature education initiative has been the Race to the Top (RTT) fund, a small part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 that was passed to stimulate the nation's ailing economy. While celebrations and criticisms of RTT abound, serious attempts to understand the program in a larger context or grapple with its underlying assumptions and mechanisms have played smaller roles in the conversation. The goal of this paper is to carefully analyze RTT to identify the program's strengths and weaknesses and to suggest what it can teach future designers and implementers of federal education policy, especially policies involving competitive grants.

Today, our collective knowledge of RTT's impact and future prospects is quite small compared to what it will be after the 2010 elections and the four years that the winners have to spend their grants. Still, this paper's consideration of RTT's basic assumptions and features, as well as the history of federal education policy, does suggest the following recommendations for federal education officials as they continue to implement RTT and consider new competitive grant programs in the future:

1. Design competitions with more focused goals and applications that are easier for states to complete and reviewers to evaluate.

2. Continue efforts to promote transparency and expand them during the RTT implementation phase.

3. Do not assume that knowledge transfer from RTT winners will always be desirable or easy.

4. Expect that the winners will not deliver on all their promises and be willing to claw back funds when they stumble. Consider making those recaptured funds available to states that just missed the winners' circle.

5. Use substantive student outcomes, not just policy outputs, to judge state success.

Certainly, other lessons will become clear as states--both the winners and losers--act upon their plans. There will also be variation in how these plans unfold. Given that federal dollars will be supporting some actions but not others, policymakers and researchers may be able to glean additional insights about the conditions under which federal grants contribute most to valuable reforms and where less federal involvement might be desirable. These ideas could inform additional competitive grant programs and other larger policy efforts, such as future reauthorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Paul Manna (pmanna@wm.edu) is an associate professor of government and a faculty affiliate in the Thomas Jefferson Program in Public Policy at the College of William and Mary.

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