NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Politics and the Scoring of Race to the Top Applications

September 24, 2010

The Obama administration's education legacy could hinge on the success of the Race to the Top program.  While conditional federal aid is nothing new in K-12 education, Race to the Top is unusual in that it incorporates rigorous competition into the application process with a substantial amount of money at stake, says Daniel H. Bowen, a distinguished doctoral fellow of education policy at the University of Arkansas.

While previous research has dissected the shortcomings of the Race to the Top application process, the extent of Race to the Top's subjectivity remains unaddressed.  Using independent studies of states' education-reform track records on certain Race to the Top criteria to examine disparities between projected and actual scores for the first round of Race to the Top, Bowen finds a disparity between these scores that raises red flags about the objectivity of the process.  Of particular concern are suspicions that scoring may have been driven by political influences, says Bowen.

  • Having a track record of education reform mattered, but, even after controlling for such considerations, a state with a seat that the Democrats could lose or take away from the Republicans (based on the CQ Politics handicapping of election races) scored up to 77 extra points on its first round application.
  • This would have been enough to vault Washington, D.C., from last place among the round-one finalists to first place, given the right political context.

These political influences are mainly possible because of Race to the Top's ambiguous rubric.  Effective rubrics explicitly state the criteria of the evaluation, specify the weights given to them, and establish methods for measuring the extent to which they are met.  For the most part, the Race to the Top rubric fails to provide objective methods for measuring the extent to which states meet criteria, leaving significant discretion in the evaluation, says Bowen.

Source: Daniel H. Bowen, "Politics and the Scoring of Race to the Top Applications," American Enterprise Institute, September 2010.

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