Ohio on path toward spreading Race to the Top winnings far and wide

Like other states, half of Ohio’s $200 to $400 million in potential Race to the Top (RttT) winnings will be distributed to participating LEAs via the Title I formula. That $100 to $200 million pot may seem like a lot of money at first blush, but in reality it represents no more than about one percent of what the state will spend on education this biennium and roughly $55 to $110 per public school student. If not targeted toward spurring real reform, the risk is great that the money will do little more than provide a small, temporary boost to district bank accounts. Unfortunately, that may be exactly what will happen. 

Ohio LEAs have until January 8 to sign on to the state’s RttT application. At this point (and it must be noted that nothing is final and that the state still has a full month to work on its application), because of the political capital spent on his school reform plan in the last state budget, Ohio’s RttT approach revolves around Governor Strickland’s education vision and the changes he signed into law in July. While that bill did contain reform-minded provisions in areas like teacher tenure and preparation, its hallmark was mandating a statewide, prescriptive, one-size-fits-all, inputs-based method for funding education – one that is far removed from student or school-based performance.  This is far from the type of reforms we hear Secretary Duncan pushing.

If Ohio’s final plan is built largely on already-mandated reforms and doesn’t require heavy lifting or difficult decisions at the local level, we are likely to see hundreds of districts sign on. Consider that Ohio has more than 1,000 LEAs (ranging from school districts and charter schools to county educational service centers and joint vocational schools). What happens if, say, one-quarter of those entities sign up for Race to the Top? What if half get on board? What if nearly all of them jump at the opportunity? The money will be spread pretty thin and what little opportunity exists for spurring bold reform with the dollars will be greatly diminished.

State education officials are surely feeling pressure from lawmakers who all want to see their constituents win a piece of this pie, no matter how small. And with a cavernous hole in the state’s education budget, spreading the wealth far and wide might seem like a good idea. But spreading the wealth isn’t the purpose of Race to the Top. It is unclear how Ohio can hope to spur districts, especially those with the most troubled schools, to embark on real reform and increase student achievement without a significant incentive, or what impact this peanut-butter approach to disseminating the dollars will have on the state’s odds of winning the award in the first place. 

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