“Race to the Top” is a special initiative of Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration meant to foster reform in American education by inviting the States to compete for a portion of a $4.35 billion innovation fund – more money at Sec. Duncan’s disposal to bring about change than any other Secretary of Education has ever had. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are four specific areas in which they are seeking to advance reform through “Race to the Top:”
1. Adopting standards and assessments that will prepare students to succeed in college and complete in the global economy.
2. Creating data systems to measure student growth and success plus help teachers and principals determine how to improve instruction.
3. Recruiting, developing, rewarding and retaining effective teachers and principals, particularly for high need schools.
4. Turning around the U.S.’s lowest performing schools. 
The Department of Education intends that awards in “Race to the Top” will go to States that have ambitious yet achievable plans for implementing compelling and comprehensive education reform. “Race to the Top” winners are meant to be examples for States and local school districts throughout the country to follow as they work on reforms to transform U.S. schools for decades to come.
The first of two rounds of applications for “Race to the Top” are due on January 19 and will be awarded in April. Many states have made legislative changes to qualify for the competition. State departments of education have teams working full-time on “Race to the Top,” some of whom have consultants funded by the Gates Foundation. Given the $100 million spent on education in the 2009 economic stimulus package and the expectation of further billions being made available to education in 2010, one may wonder how this comparatively smaller fund has sparked so much interest.
One common answer is the attraction of the prestige that will come with being a “Race to the Top” winner. Another reality is that with State budgets expected to continue to be under significant strain, a portion of the $4.3 billion awarded under “Race to the Top” will still make a significant difference to State education budgets. 
Now, numerous states are revisiting laws that would disqualify them from the grants or make their applications less attractive.
- Some states, including California, Indiana, and Wisconsin are taking steps to remove “firewall” laws that prohibit student achievement from being used to grade teacher performance.
- Four states – Illinois, Tennessee, Louisiana, and Delaware – have raised or lifted their caps on the number of charter schools they permit, and at least seven more are working to do so.
- Some of the 11 states that don’t yet allow charter schools are considering proposals to do so.
“This is very historic…. You’re looking at a fundamental redefining of the federal role,” says Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. With the guidelines that the administration has set forward, he adds, “there’s an established criteria for what it means to be a reform-minded governor or an education leader… The prestige is proving almost as valuable as the money.” 
California has been one of the hotspots for debate on education reform and the “Race to the Top.” Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa described the state’s problems so: “our schools were once the fourth-highest in the nation in reading and math. Now, we now rank below 40. In science, our students were once proudly some of the highest in the nation and now they are now some of the lowest.” Villaraigosa sees “Race to the Top” as a significant opportunity for the state legislature to accomplish the following four goals:
1. Remove the cap limiting the number of charter schools.
2. Use actual data to track student progress and evaluate teacher performance.
3. Create a real plan for turning around the lowest-performing schools
4. Empower parents to ask for reform at their child's school. 
What Villaraigosa calls for is in line with “Race to the Top” criteria. Given California’s notable budget woes, his motivations are understandable stilted toward the potential $700 million California could potentially qualify for through “Race to the Top,” but not without neglecting the need for increased student and teacher performance. Yet where Villaraigosa is both critical and hopeful, California has come under less forgiving scrutiny for the performance of its educational system.
Why? Going into the competition, California did not have the legal ability to link student achievement data to teachers and principals. In 2006, teachers' unions successfully lobbied for a law that “prohibits the state from linking student data to teacher data for the purpose of pay, promotion, sanction, or personnel evaluation.” Or as critics put it: California’s teachers cannot be judged by how well they teach. Besides this firewall, other objects of criticism have been the state’s teacher seniority codes, where layoffs must favor seniority, plus the significant achievement gap in student performance between racial groups in the state. All of which makes California less a model of a Race to the Top winner than a model for the practices the administration hopes to change. 
Of course that is the point of the “Race to the Top,” to stimulate the change that is under debate in California and many other states. And as one commentator put it: “The administration has done a good job of having a lot of states make a long-odds bet that they’re going to win the “Race to the Top” funds, so they’ve shaped their behavior a lot in advance of a single dollar being awarded. Most of what the administration is going to get in terms of reform it will get before the competition is actually completed.”
1. "Race to the Top,” U.S. Department of Education
2. “Race to the Top education grant propels reforms,” Greg Toppo, USA TODAY, 11/4/2009.
3. “Schools sprinting to win Obama's Race to the Top billions,” Amanda Paulson, Christian Science Monitor, 11/4/09.
4. “The Race to the Top Starts Now,” Antonio Villaraigosa, Huffington Post, 11/8/09.
5. “Obama's Race to the Top May Help Spur Much-Needed Education Reforms,” Lisa Snell, Reason.org, Reason Foundation, August 24, 2009.
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