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Policy | News

Obama Vows, 'I'll ... Fight for Race to the Top with Everything I've Got'

Just two days after his administration announced phase 2 Race to the Top finalists, President Obama was on the defensive about the controversial reform program operated out of the United States Department of Education. Speaking Thursday at the National Urban League Centennial Conference in Washington, DC, Obama vowed he would fight to defend the program and would resort to using the veto, if necessary, to maintain its integrity.

Race to the Top is a federal program whose stated purpose is to drive reform in public education. It's designed to shape states' education policies by offering state governments part of a $4.35 billion pool to tackle some of the priorities of the current Department of Education, priorities that depend in no small part on continued, even expanded reliance on high-stakes testing, such as holding teachers accountable for their effectiveness in driving increases in measures of student achievement and encouraging states to develop programs to turn around "underperforming" schools, as well as developing new data systems for tracking progress.

The program has come under attack by organizations that have traditionally been advocates of education and have largely supported Democratic policies, including the 3.2 million-member National Education Association (NEA). NEA earlier this month gave the program a symbolic vote of "no confidence." The group also opposed extending funding for Race to the Top after the administration asked for another $1.35 billion for the program in 2011. NEA President Dennis Van Roekel spoke before Congress and recommended redirecting the $1.35 billion 2011 request to other areas of education pending an evaluation of the first phase of the competition and a clarification of guidelines.

More recently--this week, in fact--several other organizations, including the NAACP and National Urban League itself, joined up with the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign and signed on to a framework for education reform that was highly critical of Race to the Top, specifically saying it short-changes impoverished districts.

According to the groups, "... Race to the Top Fund currently impacts only 2.5% of the students in the United States eligible for free and reduced lunch, 3% of the nation’s Black students, and less than 1% of Latino, Native American, and Hmong students."

The President, however, was adamant when he spoke Thursday.

"I know there are some who say that Race to the Top won't work. There are cynics and naysayers who argue that the problems in our education system are too entrenched, that think that we'll just fall back into the same old arguments and divides that have held us back for so long. And it is true,... change is hard."

He also said he'd oppose legislative attempts to water down the program. "I know there are a number of other steps we need to take to lift up our education system--like saving teachers' jobs across this country from layoffs--and I'll continue fighting to take those steps and save those jobs. But I'll also continue to fight for Race to the Top with everything I've got, including using a veto to prevent some folks from watering it down."

Extra Credit
President Obama on Education and Race to the Top

President Obama addresses the Urban League Centennial Conference, touching on economic issues, education, and education reform programs like Race to the Top.

Source: The United States federal government, via whitehouse.gov.

At present, 18 states and the District of Columbia have been named as finalists for the second round of Race to the Top funding. Only two states were named as winners in the first phase of the competition, leaving about $3.4 billion--more than 78 percent of the total (unaugmented) pool--to be distributed in this round. Current contenders include Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Carolina.

It's unknown at this point how many of these finalists will eventually be selected as winners. Winners are selected through a peer review process. Finalists in phase 2 will be interviewed further in early August before a final determination is made of who will receive Race to the Top funds. The final announcement is still expected in September.

A complete list of phase 2 Race to the Top finalists and their applications and supporting documents can be found here. Further information about the program in general can be found on ED's site here.

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