Critics See East Coast, Urban Biases in Race to the Top Awards

By Kevin Hart

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson purchased the vast Louisiana Territory, extending America’s boundaries far west of the Mississippi River. Now, some are wondering whether that information has failed to reach reviewers scoring federal Race to the Top applications, as the list of states that have been awarded funds seems to exhibit an overwhelming East Coast bias.

This week, the U.S. Department of Education announced that nine states and the District of Columbia had won grants in phase two of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top competition. Those states, including Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island, join first-round winners Delaware and Tennessee, which were named winners in March.

Of the 12 grant recipients named so far, only one, Hawaii, is located west of the Mississippi River. And Hawaii only qualifies for $75 million in funding, compared to $700 million for New York.

The vast majority of Race to the Top funds will be used to support East Coast schools, and Western and Midwestern states have taken notice.

‘They clearly in Washington have a tin ear about how we do things in the West,’ Colorado Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien told the Colorado Springs Gazette. O’Brien also told the paper that she thought the Race to the Top process was ‘slanted toward the East Coast and the East Coast way of thinking.’

The story was picked up across the blogosphere as well, with bloggers calling the process everything from a ‘geographic bias‘ to a ‘strong East Coast bent.’

Other critics have noted that most of the winners are states with large urban areas, reviving a criticism that the program rewards education policies, like increasing a state’s number of charter schools, that are impractical for rural states.

‘Of more concern to rural states is the difficulty of establishing, funding, and running charter schools in communities already straining to support one public school,’ wrote Caitlin Howley in an op-ed for The Daily Yonder, an online news site for rural communities. ‘Rural districts may simply lack the students, resources, and personnel to pursue charter schools.’

According to a New York Times report, experts contend that Race to the Top’s rules ‘have seemed a poor fit for the nation’s rural communities and sparsely populated Western regions.’

‘This whole effort had more of an urban than a rural flavor,’ Armando Vilaseca, commissioner of education of Vermont, told the Times.

NEA this week congratulated the second-round winners of Race to the Top, and praised states that collaborated with education stakeholders, including state and local unions, during the application process. But NEA has also expressed concern about the use of competitive grants to fund public schools, arguing that the process creates a culture of winners and losers and may prevent resources from flowing to schools that need them the most.

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