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Future of Obama education program cloudy

Two years ago, Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s signature education policy, was just a line in the massive federal stimulus bill. Now applications have been issued for the third round of the sweepstakes program, which has begun to establish itself as the nation’s de facto model for how students should learn and teachers should teach.

But after a lengthy planning process in legislatures around the country, many states only now are implementing the changes that won them money in the program’s first two rounds, and not everyone is happy with the results.

The program — in which states vie with one another for tens of millions of dollars in education grants — has faced criticism from teachers unions and state governments for its competitive nature and tight deadlines, as well as arguments that it amounts to federal interference in education policy.

One state, South Carolina, which was a finalist in the first two rounds of the program, decided in May that it no longer would participate because state education officials opposed a top-down approach to education from Washington.

Jay Ragley, the director for legislative and public affairs for state education superintendent Mick Zais, said that while state officials supported many of Race to the Top’s goals, they’d prefer change to be initiated at the state level.

Zais’ “reason for not participating was because there are strings attached to programs for federal money,” Ragley said. “And you must continue funding them after they run out.”

Ragley said officials didn’t want to start new programs that they’d have to shut down if they lost funding down the road.

In July 2009, Congress created Race to the Top as a way to inspire states to propose education revisions with the promise of millions of dollars in prize money. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s program was meant to be a short-term boost of revenue, which was why the Obama administration included the money — $4.35 billion — as part of the $787 billion stimulus package known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Duncan argued that investing in education would stimulate the economy by promoting long-term productivity. However, it was a long-term concept tucked into a stimulus package that was expected to produce immediate results.

There were four basic ideas: better preparing students for college, creating measurements for student and teacher improvement, recruiting the most effective teachers and reforming underperforming schools.

“Not every state will win and not every school district will be happy with the results,” Obama said at the time. “But America’s children, America’s economy and America itself will be better for it.”

Forty states and the District of Columbia applied for grant money in the program’s first phase. In March 2010, the administration announced the first two recipients: Tennessee, which won $500 million, and Delaware, which was granted $100 million, to carry out aggressive revisions over the next four years.

The two states just now are pushing past the planning stages and rolling out new programs. It’s been more than a year since the announcement of a second group of winners, totaling another $3.3 billion in grants. And with the stimulus funds having been spent, there’s no more money envisioned for the program.

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