by Collin Hitt
Illinois lost a very-high-stakes federal grant competition. The "Race To The Top" program has gathered headlines across the country for the better part of a year. It wrapped up earlier this week, with 12 states and the District of Columbia splitting $4B in stimulus largesse to fund public education. Ostensibly, the grant program was intended to spur states to voluntarily implement meaningful education reforms on the hopes that they would get a substantial sum of money. Illinois applied for $400, but did not make the cut.
The first-round winners were DE and TN, and were joined this week by MA, NY, HI, FL, RI, MD, GA, NC, OH, DE, TN.
The final result was perplexing to most observers. Florida, without a doubt, is doing some of the boldest work in the country in education reform. But HI certainly isn't; neither is MD; Illinois at least belongs in the company of those two states (which doesn't say much). Notably left out was LA, who in the short time since Hurricane Katrina has implemented more bold reforms, and more quickly, than any state in the union.
There is much speculation afoot about the logic behind the selection. An independent review and grading process had been set up by the feds. It was supposed to insulate the process from politics, but Harvard's Paul Peterson points out a strange, unfortunate coincidence:
At the end of round one of the RttT contest, it appeared as if politics was irrelevant. The focus was on which states had a good reform strategy. Only two winners were identified. One Red State (Tennessee)–that had voted for John McCain– and one Blue State (Delaware)–that had voted for Barack Obama—shared the honors.
Round two tells a different story. Congratulations must be given to the state of Georgia, for it was the only Red State winner. The other 9 winners were all colored blue on election night back in November 2008…
Of course, it will be explained that rules were followed, nonpartisan experts rated the submissions, and the White House exercised no control whatsoever over the outcome. But politics can affect the rules that are constructed and the experts that are chosen. When the numbers result in a Blue State: Red State ratio of 9:1, one suspects, with even more than 90 percent confidence, that RttT is as much or more a partisan boondoggle as an education reform strategy.
There are different ways to label states Red or Blue. And different states are different in size. So let's add up the money actually awarded to Peterson's blue states versus his red states: my quick math says that 77 percent of the $3.85B that went to states went to states that voted for President Obama. But what about coming elections? Not all Obama states are blue states. Some are toss ups, some are even leaning red.
As it turns out, the pattern seems to hold. Of the states with a Senate race this fall, 70 percent of the money went to states that were rated by fivethirtyeight.com as Democrat, leaning Democrat, or a toss up. Among states with a governor's race, about 85 percent went to blue or toss up states.
Much will be made of this, in time. Rightfully so. But, being from Illinois, a blue state with a blue governor who needs a boost against a very red challenger - to say nothing of the crucial Gianoullis/Kirk U.S. Senate race that could strengthen a GOP filibuster in the lame duck session this winter - I have to say that we would have certainly been cut in on a deal, if there was one. Two losses for D's at the top of the ticket would be an embarrassment to the White House.
There was no conspiracy, in my view, just a bad out-of-control process that favored a high number of states that are either crucial to Democrats or bad at education reform. There are blue and toss up states that are better for education reform than some of the winners; a rigged process would have at least favored them.