Lieberman backs permanent Race to the Top

WASHINGTON-Sen. Joseph Lieberman wants to expand and make permanent a controversial federal education grant program, even though Connecticut has twice lost out in the competition for such money.

Lieberman, an independent, is pushing legislation to change the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top initiative from a one-shot federal stimulus program into an enduring feature of federal education policy.

But Lieberman’s move has sparked consternation among some Connecticut education officials and other members of the state’s Congressional delegation. It comes after Connecticut suffered two stinging defeats in its efforts to snag coveted Race to the Top funds, a failure that in part prompted state Education Commissioner Mark McQuillan to criticize the Obama Administration’s emphasis on such competitive initiatives.

Congress first passed Race to the Top as part of the economic stimulus bill in 2009. That law set aside $4.3 billion for the federal Department of Education (DOE) to dole out to states that met key criteria, chiefly enacting education reforms that, for example, link teacher evaluations to student test scores.

Lieberman and others say the program has achieved remarkable success, at relatively little cost. They note, for example, that in the scramble to compete for the new federal money, 46 states and the District of Columbia developed comprehensive education reform plans.

Connecticut was one of those states, with the legislature passing an education overhaul that included a new teacher evaluation system, increased high school graduation requirements, and strengthened charter schools.

“Race to the Top has without a doubt helped to focus the country’s attention on school reform,” Lieberman said in a statement unveiling his legislation. “And now it is essential that we keep the momentum moving forward.”

To be sure, the fate of some of these reforms is now in doubt, as Connecticut and other states that did not win Race to the Top grants try to figure out how to fund their implementation without federal assistance. Connecticut twice fell short in its applications for Race to the Top money, most recently losing out on an anticipated $175 million.

In all, 12 states were awarded Race to the Top money. Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the federal incentives had spurred incredible innovation, with the winning states adopting rigorous new reading and math standards and coming up with new ways to train and keep effective teachers, among other steps.

The Obama Administration has called for a 3rd Round of Race to the Top grants, asking Congress for $1.35 billion for fiscal year 2011. That request is currently pending in Congress, which has recessed until after the Nov. 2 elections.

Lieberman’s bill, which the White House worked with him on and supports, would authorize the $1.35 billion for 2011 and calls for a similar level of funding for the next five years. The proposal generally sets out the same criteria that Duncan has used so far, but it would allow local school districts, not just states, to submit federal grant applications.

The aim, Lieberman’s office said, is to codify the program into federal education law, increasing its importance and making it permanent. It could also give Connecticut, as well as key districts such as Hartford or New Haven, additional opportunities to secure Race to the Top money.

But critics, including Democratic Reps. Joe Courtney and Rosa DeLauro, from Connecticut’s 2nd and 3rd districts respectively, say Race to the Top is a misguided program that pit states against each other and risks sapping funding from under-performing districts. Many fear it could hurt the poorest students in states or districts that don’t have great grant writers or that otherwise cannot meet the federal government’s new criteria.

“Schools that encounter difficulties will be punished instead of aided, and they will not be able to compete with those that receive the extra funding,” DeLauro said. “We must ensure that our schools get the funding they need to invest in our all children, not just those that have been deemed ‘winners’ in this competition.”

Courtney, who sits on the House Education and Labor Committee, said that while Race to the Top did trigger sweeping reforms across the country, “it’s unworkable” as a long-term policy.

Courtney said it would inject more unpredictability into already-strapped school budgets, as they wait from one year to the next to see if they’re going to get a one-time federal cash infusion. “You could literally go from one year to the next with big ups and downs, and that just does not work as a sustainable, solid policy for success,” he said.

Courtney also argued that continuing Race to the Top would increase the federal role in local education, “creating a one-size-fits-all” funding process. “That’s clearly how Race to the Top played out,” he said. “They had their point system, and if you didn’t do it exactly the way the folks in Washington wanted, you didn’t win.”

Joseph Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said he hopes Congress doesn’t even approve a 3rd round of Race to the Top, let alone the kind of expansion Lieberman has proposed.

After the first two rounds, “children in 38 states got nothing, and that’s just not right,” he said. Cirasuolo said he would prefer to see Congress reshape Race to the Top as a formula-based program, under which the federal Department of Education would detail a set of education reform criteria that each state would be required to meet.

Once the state has adequately outlined its reform plans, the federal government could release the federal funds, he said. And then DOE could follow up to make sure the state is making good on its promises.

Thomas Murphy, a spokesman for Connecticut’s Department of Education, said McQuillan is concerned about the Obama Administration’s emphasis on competitive grants, fearing that it represents a shift away from formula-based federal funding designed to help school districts serve needy children.

But he said the agency wouldn’t necessarily oppose Lieberman’s proposal, particularly if the funding didn’t take away from existing education programs and if it re-jiggered Race to the Top criteria to give states more flexibility. If there was another grant competitive, he said, “we would roll up our sleeves” and try again because the state desperately needs money to executive its reforms.

Lieberman was not available for comment, but an aide said the hope was to have his proposal included when Congress reauthorizes the No Child Left Behind Act (also known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act). That will likely happen next year when a new Congress convenes.

Courtney and others say it’s unclear how the battlelines will be drawn over the issue come January, especially if the Republicans make significant gains in the election. Some of Obama’s reforms, such an increased emphasis on charter schools, appeal to the GOP.

But whether they would want to compromise with a Democratic president is uncertain, and any effort to win a significant increase in education funding could also be tough in the current fiscal climate.

Whatever the outcome of the elections, Courtney said, “this is going to be a big issue for the next Congress.”