U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan defended himself yesterday to critics of one of the centerpieces of his federal education policy — his practice of staging competitions to reward student progress or new ideas.
Duncan’s approach, which inspired his signature Race to the Top grant program, has drawn criticism from advocates like the NAACP, some state leaders and even members of Congress. His critics say that a policy that awards funds based on anything other than student need will inevitably leave some districts behind.
During Duncan’s visit to the state teachers union headquarters in Albany yesterday, those concerns surfaced again, this time from a teacher from Newburgh. Patricia Van Duser told Duncan that school districts like hers depend on the reliable funding that the federal education department doles out to schools based on need.
Van Duser worried that her district’s finances could be jeopardized if the federal government moves towards a more competitive model as the Obama administration plans its overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
“You really need that to be formula-driven, not competitive-driven,” she said.
Duncan responded that under his proposal, the Department of Education would still hand out 80 percent of federal education funds based on need. And Race to the Top has proven that the federal government can use competition to leverage widespread policy change with a small amount of money, he argued.
Less than one percent of current federal education funds have been spent on competitive grant programs, Duncan said. That contest, which in the end awarded funds to a total of 11 states and the District of Columbia, prompted policy changes in 34 states.
“It’s not either-or,” Duncan said. “The vast majority will be formula-driven…but we still have a chance to reward excellence through competitive grants. I think we need to do that.”
For next year, Obama and Duncan have asked Congress for nearly $50 billion in education funds, a 7.5 percent increase from the year before. Most of that increase — about $3.5 billion — would go to new competitive programs, including continuations of the Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation grant programs.