The race by the Congress to pass health care reform and climate change legislation came to a screeching halt as the summer adjournment began for the U.S. House of Representatives on August 1 and its members left Washington to spend the month with constituents back home. The Senate soon followed suit after its confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor as a Supreme Court Justice. Armed with talking points to defend the Democrats’ draft of health care legislation and the stimulus bill passed to accelerate economic recovery, the majority party approached this period at home with a good bit of anxiety about voters’ concerns with the continuing recession, skyrocketing budget deficits and unemployment. And Republicans, watching the falling approval ratings of the President, have seized this time to send a message of opposition to emerging health care reform heard loudly and vigorously at town hall meetings throughout the country.

In the days leading up to August, another significant story somewhat hidden in the barrage of health care press was the launching by the U.S. Department of Education of its new $4.35 billion competitive grant program that was originally part of the broader economic stimulus law. Called “Race to the Top,” these grants are aimed at education reform and provide a portal to the federal government’s new incentives for school improvement throughout the country. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan calls it a “moon shot” in education reform, and President Barack Obama has joined him in telling states and the education world that there are serious strings attached to receiving this never-before-seen pot of federal funding. Those who embrace the same old ways of doing things wrapped in old policies need not apply. This funding will go to change-driven education entrepreneurs who have proven records with successful models that can be replicated. Health care and climate change may have pushed reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act off the Congressional agenda, but the USDE has turned to bold and controversial ways to advance education reform.

States that have developed plans for education reform will have the best shot at receiving these funds, especially in four critical areas: common internationally benchmarked standards aligned with assessments, recruitment and retention of effective teachers supported by effective leaders, quality data systems to drive improvement decisions, and aggressive intervention in chronically low-performing schools. Only four states including Texas have not signed on to a state-led process to develop common core K-12 standards for language arts and math. That will not make the state ineligible for funds, but since the adoption of core standards is one of four state reform conditions, it will be a part of the evaluation process. (Editor’s note: The Texas Commissioner of Education has expressed qualms about requirements to adopt the common core national standards, and it is unclear how Texas will proceed given this concern.) The two non-negotiable eligibility requirements are that states must have been approved by the USDE for American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds and states must not have any laws that block the linkage of student data to teacher evaluations. Duncan has indicated that a state’s application will lose points if the state places a cap on the number of charter schools or limits alternative routes to teacher and principal certification.

The framework for “Race to the Top” funding was released at the end of July, and the process is on a fast track as required in ARRA. The public comment period concluded on August 28 with TCTA submitting comments, and a notice inviting applications from states will be issued in the fall and due two months later. Phase 1 winners will be announced in the first half of 2010. The deadline for applications from states for Phase 2 is spring 2010, with winners announced by September 2010. In an editorial in the Washington Post, Duncan shares his enthusiastic optimism for change in education saying “The edifice of education reform may take years to build. ut the ‘Race to the Top’ starts today.”

Leo Coco is TCTA’s lobbyist in Washington, D.C. He is a senior policy advisor with the law firm of Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough and his background includes extensive experience in the U.S. Department of Education.