It appears that Race to the Top (RTTT)–the government’s latest attempt to dole out federal dollars for state education budgets–is turning into more of a wild goose chase. Politico reports:

The idea seemed simple: Hold a contest for states to compete for billions in federal aid, right at a moment when school systems are battling budget problems. To win the funding, schools would have to convince Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s team that they were prepared to instill more teacher accountability and tougher standards to help students learn.

But simple is rarely the case when the federal government gets involved.

The first round of the competition awarded grants to just two states–Delaware and Tennessee–out of 41 applicants. And increasingly, more states are signaling that they may not submit applications for round two grants, which are due on June 1st. So far, Massachusetts, Virginia, Kansas, California, Indiana, Vermont, Wyoming, and South Dakota have indicated that they may not apply for RTTT grants in round two. This despite a written plea from Education Secretary Arne Duncan to governors in an attempt to convince more states to apply. In this April 21st letter to governors, Duncan wrote:

I further recognize that the Department’s competitive initiatives like Race to the Top have taxed your limited staff resources, but I encourage you to apply in Phase 2. The June 1 deadline is rapidly approaching, and we have $3.4 billion left to award. This is a tremendous opportunity, and I encourage every State to apply.

RTTT is clearly taxing school districts’ “limited staff resources,” as an April 27th letter from 13 state education superintendents and commissioners to Secretary Duncan illustrates:

By forcing our already stretched state agencies to participate in such a rigorous competitive grant application, Race to the Top is detracting from the very real issues that need our attention, and actually takes away from the services our students and schools need and deserve.

The burden of applying for RTTT is likely the reason, as Politico phrased it, that some states are “hitting a wall”.

Race to the Top is hitting the wall. President Barack Obama’s $4.35 billion grant competition–designed to encourage states to dramatically improve school performance–is running into resistance across the country, as state officials and teachers unions are clashing with the administration over the contest rules.

Some states are saying no because they fear an increase in federal red tape. Other states can’t get the necessary “stakeholders” to agree to their applications. In the first round of awards it became quite clear that states that received stakeholder agreement–i.e., union buy-in–to carry out the federal government’s goals for education were scored more favorably. The two winners, Delaware and Tennessee, received nearly full buy-in from teachers unions, as opposed to Florida–a reform-minded state that failed to garner significant union support.

If Washington wants to see real education reform, the answer isn’t to tie states to the demands of the federal government. States need more freedom to apply reforms, such as the successful changes implemented in Florida. Instead of aiming for the top in educational achievement, RTTT is another distraction from the important reforms that could truly help students get ahead.