Next Bunch of Obama Education Reforms to Offer More Carrots

When the Obama administration first proposed having states duke it out for a share of a $4 billion education-reform fund, critics expected the whole enterprise to either be largely ignored or dissolve into political infighting. But instead, the Race to the Top competition has proved so successful in motivating states to accelerate their education-reform efforts that the administration has new plans to offer such competitions on an annual basis. President Obama will also announce tonight that the Department of Education will be offering a new competition to push states to create more and better preschool programs. During a briefing Tuesday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said that the country doesn’t “need any more studies” to prove that high-quality preschool education can significantly close the achievement gap between rich and poor. Instead, he said, the country just needs to offer such programs to more kids. The president “wants to dramatically increase access and give kids a level playing field," Duncan said. “If kids don’t come to school ready to learn and ready to read,  it’s very tough for even the best kindergarten teachers to close that gap.” During the presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly promised that he would expand early education programs but has focused little attention on the issue during his first year.

Duncan said the administration hopes to pay for a new Early Learning Challenge Fund with the savings it will make by eliminating banks as the middleman in federal student-loan transactions and letting the government provide all student loans directly. A bill to achieve this conversion has already sailed through the House and is expected to pass in the Senate. Since the government started offering direct student loans during the Clinton administration, the program has proved to be efficient, effective, and a big money-saver. Duncan said the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that a complete switch to direct student loans, which could happen as early as next year, would save an estimated $87 billion over 10 years. About $8 billion of those savings is expected to be funneled into the ELCF over 10 years; about $40 billion over 10 years will go into an expanded Pell Grant program; and $10 billion will be used to improve community colleges. Another $9 billion is being reserved to lower interest rates on student loans.

Administration officials say they have been amazed at how effectively the competition model used in the Race to the Top program has leveraged education-reform efforts nationally. Jurisdictions were given extra points in the competition by committing to reform efforts like expanding charter-school programs and agreeing to use student achievement data when evaluating the effectiveness of their teachers. Forty states, plus the District of Columbia, recently filed applications boasting of their recent reform efforts in an attempt to earn a share of the $4 billion pot.

"What we have witnessed through the competitive Race to the Top process is a radical redefining of the federal government's role in raising the nation's expectations about what is possible in terms of reforming our public schools,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. “It turns out we are a pretty competitive nation, and no state (with the possible exception of our friends in Texas) seems to want to see itself portrayed as being inferior.” Texas is one of 10 states that declined to participate in the Race to the Top program.

New plans to make the competition an annual event are aimed at encouraging those states that lose out on round one to keep moving forward.

Critics had expected a backlash by states that had little chance of winning any of the money, but so far that has not happened. It’s particularly noteworthy that Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House education committee, has backed continued use of the competition model to press school reform, since California (which educates one in nine American children and is facing massive school budget crises) seems unlikely to be a winner in the first round of the Race to the Top competition. “As long as they uphold the integrity of the model, incentivizing states to reform is something the chairman can get behind,” said one of his staffers.