Billions More for Schools, but with a Catch?

President Obama's 2011 budget proposes some major changes for federal education policy, including to the controversial No Child Left Behind initiative. Elementary and secondary schools would receive billions more in funding under his budget plan, but some experts are skeptical of whether the president's reforms will take federal policy in the right direction -- and whether Congress will go along with any of it.

Elementary and Secondary schools would receive an extra $3 billion in competitive funding under the plan, including an extra $1.35 billion for Mr. Obama's Race to the Top initiative. The Race to the Top program awards competitive grants to states that implement reforms favored by the administration, such as linking teacher pay to student test performance.

"Race to the Top taught us that competition and incentives drive reform," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a statement. "So even as we continue funding important formula programs...we are adding money to competitive programs that are changing the landscape of our education system."

Mr. Obama's proposed changes do not follow the "Race to the Top" model as closely as some may have expected, Jennifer Cohen, an education policy analyst with the New America Foundation, told Hotsheet. Still, she said, there is a new emphasis on awarding competitive grants for educational funding, which follows the Race to the Top model.

That, Cohen said, could turn the issue into a "political football" in Congress. Smaller states with smaller administrative staffs could have a harder time keeping up in the competitive grant process.

"It could potentially be unpopular with Congress because it's basically telling Congress your state may or may not get the money but your taxpayers will still pay for it," Cohen said.

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Some commentators are complaining not that Race to the Top awards grants on a competitive basis but that it encourages certain reforms like linking teachers to their students' performance data. Part of the administration's new proposals include requiring states to develop a definition of an effective teacher, tied to student achievement and growth.

"Here's the problem," Daniel Willingham, a professor at the University of Virginia, wrote in the Washington Post. "States are not really committed to the reforms the administration envisions. If they were, they would have implemented them, or at least they would have been making a game attempt to do so."

"When you pay people to do something, they don't become motivated to do it," he continued. "They become motivated to be able to defend that they are doing it. States will do their best to make it appear that they are complying."

The president's budget offers many other education proposals that may be more popular. The administration suggests scrapping No Child Left Behind's 2014 deadline by which all schools are supposed to reach "academic proficiency." Many have criticized this deadline as unrealistic and offering little incentive for poorly-performing schools to improve. Instead, the Obama administration is calling for a new goal of helping all students graduate "college or career ready."

It is a "warm and fuzzy way of repurposing the program," Cohen said.

While the administration has demonstrated its faith in Race to the Top with the additional money it is giving the program, Cohen said it is too early to tell whether the program is actually working. Until states can link student achievement to Race to the Top funding -- which may take until the end of 2011 -- it is impossible to measure its outcome, she wrote earlier this month. The administration is, in fact, asking for an increase in funding to research the outcomes of Race to the Top, which Cohen calls "very significant and positive."