As Race to the Top – the Obama administration’s $4.35 billion grant program designed to spur education reform – becomes a summer-long marathon for the remaining states that did not win grants in the first round of competition, the U.S. Department of Education has added an additional contest to the education grant Olympics. The Race to the Top Assessment (RTA) will provide $350 million to a consortium of states to develop an assessment system tracking student mastery of common college- and career-ready standards. While the prospect of additional funds might sound enticing to financially-strapped states, the federal strings attached to Race to the Top assessments could pull state and local education decisions out of communities and into the hands of Washington bureaucrats.
Incentivizing the adoption of certain standards, even if not directly written by a federal entity, allows the federal government unprecedented sway over how states and local governments should choose curriculum guidelines. Picking up the tab for an accompanying assessment system of federally-incentivized standards only further validates a federal hand in local education decisions.
The RTA application suggests that only one or two consortia, consisting of at least 15 states dedicated to adopting the Common Core, will win the coveted grant. The grant application also specifies that member states are legally bound to uphold and implement the assessment system and rules determined by their consortium and funded by the U.S. Department of Education. This will provide the federal government with one or two centralized bargaining partners, thereby increasing the possibility of federal control over education decisions, including definitions of curriculum standards, traditionally left to state and local entities.
Pursuing this path would mean parents and taxpayers would give up one of their most powerful tools for control of education to the federal government. Rather than heading down this road, Washington should take the grant competition opportunity to promote reforms that bring innovation and school choice to local communities.
In the perennial race to serve American families with a quality education, state and local governments don’t need federal red tape to further bind their hands. Given the freedom to respond to community needs and attempt innovative education reforms like voucher programs and virtual schooling, states and local governments can effectively provide educational quality and opportunity to parents and students.