The Education Department awarded $500 million in grants to nine states last week, carrying out a promise it made in May to concentrate its limited resources on early learning. The awards are the latest to be doled out under the administration's flagship Race to the Top competitive grant program. The agency had only $700 million to work with this year, much of which it is devoting to reading and math in the early grades.
The White House considers Race to the Top to be one of its most successful domestic policy achievements because virtually all states have devoted time and money toward education reforms, even if they haven't won any of the competitions. That trend has continued. Most recently, the administration said 35 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico "have created plans to increase access to high-quality programs for children from low-income families, providing more children from birth to age 5 with a strong foundation they need for success."
Still, the grant program is being suffocated because it is unpopular among some lawmakers. (Most critics, but not all, are Republicans). The department had $4.35 billion to give away just last year. This year, the payout was reduced to $700 million. Republicans want to cut that amount by more than 20 percent.
What is the future for Race to the Top? Could this be the end? With limited funding, what happens to the concept of competitive grants? Are competitions like Race to the Top an appropriate way to drive public policy? Does the Education Department's grant program work better when it has more money and is financing larger projects? Or is it a better use of funds and leverage when the grants are tailored to more specific goals?