Earlier this month, on the brink of another government shutdown and amid the high drama that Americans have come to expect from this Congress, the Senate passed a $1.1 trillion spending bill that will fund most of the federal government through September 2015. The bill keeps education funding largely steady and slightly increases funds for early education. What it doesn’t include is any funding for one of President Obama’s most prominent education initiatives: Race to the Top (RTT).
But while the elimination of RTT funding has made headlines in multiple media outlets, it’s not as drastic a change as some have made it out to be. In other words, the program’s opponents should not be patting themselves on the back for derailing the program just yet. After all, RTT was created to spark innovation in education policy and accelerate the administration’s reform agenda. And by those standards, it has already largely succeeded--in fact, its impact is really just beginning to be felt.
RTT was originally funded at $4.35 billion under the 2009 stimulus bill. The funds were then awarded to states through competitive grants from the Department of Education. Although it was once a multibillion-dollar initiative, the program has been dealt steady funding decreases since its inception. In fact, RTT only received $250 million in last year’s spending bill, dollars that were then used to fund the fiscal year 2014 Preschool Development Grants competition. This year’s spending bill allocates the same level of funding for the Preschool Development Grants program--albeit its no longer termed “Race to the Top.” But for all intents and purposes, the program is in many ways likely to remain the same.
While this is the first time that the RTT brand has been completely dropped by Congress, it isn’t the first time it has taken on new form. We’ve seen RTT shape-shift over the last five years: There was the original version that encouraged states to make key reforms in K-12 education, the Race to the Top - District competitions focusing on personalized learning, and Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge(RTT-ELC), which called on states to improve and coordinate early education systems for children from birth to age 5. As competitive grants, these iterations of RTT were never intended to reach all states or all districts, but instead were designed to support the most capable applicants in their reform efforts. In total, each program has undergone multiple rounds or “phases” of competitions, reaching tens of millions of children throughout the country.
None of these programs held competitions in fiscal year 2014; the federal government only provided technical assistance to existing grantees, as it will likely continue to do.
And even without a big new number in the spending bill, RTT will continue to have an impact on the American education system--not only on the students directly impacted by the existing grants, but also on future students who will benefit from these reforms. At the K-12 level, the funds are helping to create new teacher evaluation systems, build better student data systems, and assist states in school turnaround efforts. RTT also accelerated the adoption of the rigorous Common Core State Standards, which are currently being implemented in 43 states and Washington, D.C. While RTT’s specific priorities may be controversial, it’s clear that these programs have spurred education reform throughout the country.
It has spurred change in birth-to-five education as well. The U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, which jointly administer RTT-ELC, recently released a report emphasizing its reach. The 14 states covered in the report were awarded grants in 2011 and 2012, and their ambitious reforms are estimated to reach over four million children. As the Departments explain, “This represents 34.5 percent of the more than 11 million children from birth through age 5 in families living below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level in the United States.” These grantees are building high-quality, comprehensive early education systems by implementing quality standards, Kindergarten Entry Assessments, and other promising reforms. In just two years, states increased the amount of children served by Tiered Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (TQRIS) by 73%, allowing more parents to make informed decisions regarding the quality of early care and education centers.
So while the headlines might suggest that RTT is dead, in reality it’s already accomplished much of what it was designed to. Congress can remove future funding for the program, but it cannot easily reverse the progress that has already been made. Eleven states and DC completed their grant periods this year and continue to make headway on their ambitious goals. And current grantees will continue to reach millions of children around the country for the remainder of their grants-- and hopefully the benefits of these reforms will last much longer.
Still, the big question is whether states will make it a priority to sustain and build on the progress that they've made under RTT without federal support. That’s the only way to really make sure this education systems building and program improvement work continues.