Education Secretary Arne Duncan

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced the 19 finalists for the final phase of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top (RTTT) competition on Tuesday. The finalists are Arizona, California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and South Carolina.

In his speech, Duncan called the reform movement a “quiet revolution” and said the program “has unleashed an avalanche of pent-up education-reform activity.” Duncan is absolutely right that this is a “quiet revolution,” because it has been a completely opaque process. Many Members of Congress, as well as local school boards and parents, have been shut out of the national standards push. The Administration is using a carrot-and-stick approach to get states to adopt its reforms, circumventing Congress and preventing real debate and discussion from reaching the American people.

But Duncan is wrong that an avalanche of pent-up education-reform activity has been unleashed. The states that adopted national standards did so in order to receive a piece of the $4.35 billion pie in a time of fiscal uncertainty.

It’s interesting to take a step back and examine the states that have and have not adopted common standards. Such an examination leads to some interesting conclusions about the so-called avalanche of reforms.

First, the average RTTT score for phase 2 finalists increased by an average of 26 points from the first phase. It is worth noting that states receive 20 points for “supporting the transition” to adopting standards in the RTTT point system (70 points overall for their adoption). The winners of the first phase, Delaware and Tennessee, have not yet adopted national standards. In addition, all of the finalists except Colorado and California have adopted national standards. It will be interesting to see if these states adopt national standards in the weeks leading up to the announcement of the final winners.
So it’s a catch-22 for the Administration. President Obama is unlikely to rescind RTTT awards for states that refuse to adopt the standards, because doing so would admit the federal government’s role in their adoption.

Adoption of national standards by states appears to be only an attempt to gain federal grants—not real reform. But in taking Washington’s money, are states sacrificing their educational autonomy for short-term budgetary security? The 30 governors will soon find out.

James Hall is a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: