Politics and the Scoring of Race to the Top Applications: This Is the Fourth in a Series of Special Reports on the K-12 Education Implications of the Federal Government's Economic Stimulus Package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act

By Bowen, Daniel H. | AEI Paper & Studies, September 2010 | Go to article overview

Politics and the Scoring of Race to the Top Applications: This Is the Fourth in a Series of Special Reports on the K-12 Education Implications of the Federal Government's Economic Stimulus Package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act


Bowen, Daniel H., AEI Paper & Studies


The Obama administration's education legacy could hinge on the success of the Race to the Top (RTT) program. Now more than ever, with the Department of Education's recent announcement of the round-two winners, RTT has received its share of praise and criticism. The praise stems from RTT's success in fostering policy discussions about the education-reform environment-like the legislative battles on charter schools in New York (1) and Alabama (2)--that can lead to low-cost reforms. (3) Critics have attacked the application process for its subjective criteria and anonymous scoring and have questioned its ability to yield meaningful outcomes. (4) RTT presents something of a Catch-22, as the application guidelines stipulate that state proposals ought to include the support of the same teachers unions that are deeply concerned about many of the required changes. (5) However, while the impact of these efforts on student outcomes will remain unmeasureable for some time, the application and grant-making process is now ripe for scrutiny.

While conditional federal aid is nothing new in K-12 education, RTT is unusual in that it incorporates rigorous competition into the application process with a substantial amount of money at stake. This competition can prove beneficial in two ways. First, it discourages the "compliance" mindset, in which grantees do the bare minimum necessary to seek funds. (6) Second, it may propel states into an irrational escalation of commitment, (7) creating a greater cost-benefit ratio than a traditional grant program. (8)

Research by William Peterson and Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute has raised questions about whether RTT possesses the objectivity required of an impartial evaluation process. (9) While this research has dissected the shortcomings of the RTT application process, the extent of RTT's subjectivity remains unaddressed. (10) This Education Stimulus Watch report uses independent studies of states' education-reform track records on certain RTT criteria to examine disparities between projected and actual scores for the first round of RTT. I find a disparity between these scores that raises red flags about the objectivity of the process.

Of particular concern, given how much the impact of RTT relies on the assumption of a level playing field, are suspicions that scoring may have been driven by political influences. To explore such concerns, I employed regression analysis to examine the first-round scores of the forty-one states that applied. The regression model incorporates a state's political circumstances (that is, the contentiousness of its upcoming elections) and an education-reform index that reflects a state's demonstrated reform efforts, making it possible to identify the degree to which political considerations appeared to influence a state's first-round score. The hypothesis guiding this analysis is that states of greater interest to the White House received preferential grades on their RTT applications. Through regression analysis, it is possible to measure such a preference by inserting political factors (for example, whether a state has a heated gubernatorial or Senate race) into the equation.

This model suggests that political forces influenced how states fared in the first round. Having a track record of education reform also mattered, but, even after controlling for such considerations, the status of a state's Senate and gubernatorial races for the 2010 election explained up to a seventy-seven-point increase (out of five hundred) on its final score. In other words, a state with a seat that the Democrats could lose or take away from the Republicans, based on the CQ Politics handicapping of election races, scored up to seventyseven extra points on its first-round application. This would have been enough to vault Washington, D.C., from last place among the round-one finalists to first place, given the right political context-allowing it to pocket a cool couple hundred million courtesy of the secretary of education. …

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