Battle Of Race-to-the-Top Editorials

In the battle of the Race-to-the-Top editorials, the Wall Street Journal beats the New York Times, hands down.

Yesterday, both papers ran editorials about the so-called “Race to the Top Fund,” a pot of $4.35 billion over which U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was given control under the  ”stimulus” law. Last Friday, as I reported, Duncan and President Obama staged a lovely dog-and-pony show for the release of draft Race to the Top regulations, and they naturally went on about how a new day was dawning, and this fund would force real reform, and blah, blah, blah, blah…

The Times must have been very impressed by the canine-and-equine event:

The federal government talks tough about requiring the states to improve schools in exchange for education aid. Then it caves in to political pressure and rewards mediocrity when it’s time to enforce the bargain. As a result, the country has yet to achieve many of the desperately needed reforms laid out in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002 and other laws dating back to the 1990’s.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is ready to break with that tradition as he prepares to distribute the $4.3 billion discretionary pot of money known as the Race to the Top Fund. States that have dragged their feet or actively resisted school reform in the past are screaming about the rigorous but as yet preliminary criteria by which their grant applications will be judged.

Now, the Old Gray Lady is absolutely right that the feds have talked tough time and again about demanding real improvment, but have produced precious little by way of improved achievement. In light of that, why would they possibly believe that Obama and his crew are really “ready to break with that tradition”? Oh, right: because they have produced draft regulations for Race to the Top that seem tough, and they appear to really, really want states to adopt national standards.

Uggh.

The Journal, in stark contrast to the Times, actually considered the federal track record — including Obama’s so far — and saw a more or less unbroken trend: huge spending that rewards the status quo and those employed by it, and little else but rhetoric. I say “more or less,” by the way, because the one way in which Obama has broken with the trend is in the shear, staggering size of the mountain of money he has sent the status quo’s way:

The Obama Administration unveiled its new “Race to the Top” initiative late last week, in which it will use the lure of $4.35 billion in federal cash to induce states to improve their K-12 schools. This is going to be interesting to watch, because if nothing else the public school establishment is no longer going to be able to say that lack of money is its big problem.

Four billion dollars is a lot of money, but it’s a tiny percentage of what the U.S. spends on education. The Department of Education estimates that the U.S. as a whole spent $667 billion on K-12 education in the 2008-09 school year alone, up from $553 billion in 2006-07. The stimulus bill from earlier this year includes some $100 billion more in federal education spending—an unprecedented amount. The tragedy is that nearly all of this $100 billion is being dispensed to the states by formula, which allows school districts to continue resisting reform while risking very little in overall federal funding.

It should be noted that not all of the $100 billion in education stimulus is going to K-12 education — some goes to higher education and other areas — and states had to at least pay lip service to reform in order to get most of their money. But the cash infusion is still huge, and lip service is something we’ve never had in short supply. But bottomless abundance of lip sevice — or complete absence of any real reform so far — notwithstanding, as far the New York Times is concerned a new day really is dawning.