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Year in Review: Race to the Top and Education Reform

December 27, 2010

Change_sign The battle over healthcare reform early in the year and then the buildup to the midterm elections overshadowed one of the Obama administration's more ambitious goals in 2010: furthering efforts to reform America's struggling public education system.

Headed by former Chicago Public Schools chief Arne Duncan, the U.S. Department of Education kicked off the year with two major announcements: a $250 million public-private expansion of the Educate to Innovate program, which aims to boost learning and achievement in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields; and, a few weeks later, a proposed $1.35 billion expansion of its signature Race to the Top program, a comprehensive effort, backed by a $4.35 billion investment, "to incentivize excellence, spur reform, and promote the adoption and use of effective policies and practices" in the nation's public school systems. In March, sixteen finalists from a pool of forty-six states and the District of Columbia were announced in the first round of the competition, followed, a few weeks later, by an announcement of the first two states to receive grants: Delaware ($100 million) and Tennessee ($500 million).

Those announcements were followed, in August, by news that grants totaling more than $3.2 billion had been awarded to an additional nine states -- Florida ($700 million), New York ($700 million), Georgia ($400 million), Maryland ($400 million), North Carolina ($400 million), Ohio ($400 million), Massachusetts ($250 million), Hawaii ($75 million), and Rhode Island ($75 million) -- as well as Washington, D.C. ($75 million), leading Duncan to declare the first year of the program a success. However, an issue brief published by the Foundation Center in June as part of the Foundations for Education Excellence initiative argued that the future success of Race to the Top would depend, in no small measure, on the federal government's willingness to include private grantmakers in the development of education reform policies and on grantmakers committing to being engaged, long-term partners in the process.

Indeed by then, a coalition of private foundations had already announced its intention to invest up to half a billion dollars in education reform efforts, with some of that money designated to match funds from the Department of Education's $650 million Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund, which provides grants to local agencies, nonprofits, and school districts with a demonstrated record of improving student achievement, reducing dropout rates, increasing high school graduation rates, and/or increasing college enrollment and completion rates. The foundations involved in the effort -- the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Lumina, Casey, GatesMott, Ford, MacArthur, and Kellogg foundations -- also joined forces to create the Foundation Registry i3, an Internet portal where education reform groups could apply for matching funds from coalition partners in a single step.

"Much of what Secretary Duncan is currently addressing at the department builds on existing foundation investments in education," said Carnegie Corporation president Vartan Gregorian. "As such, the twelve foundations realized this is a significant moment to seriously advance student learning so that all of our young people are prepared to succeed in a global economy and for citizenship in a complex world. It was time to maximize our collective efforts."

No review of the year in education philanthropy would be complete without mention of Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, two of America's most successful technologists and respected "philanthrocapitalists."

In September, the 26-year-old Zuckerberg, the nation's youngest billionaire, announced a $100 million matching gift to establish a foundation dedicated to supporting reform efforts in Newark, New Jersey's long-troubled public school system, while Gates, the country's wealthiest individual, continued, largely through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to be a major supporter of education reform at the elementary, secondary, and higher education levels.

Indeed, as the year came to a close, Gates, in remarks to the Council of Chief State School Officers, called on the nation's state education superintendents to take the difficult steps needed to restructure their public education budgets, which have been battered by the economic downturn. "Our best chance to change budgets starts now," Gates told those in attendance. "Your appropriations committees will see the state school budgets and ask you to show them an easy way out. I think you can tell them -- 'there is a way out, but it's not easy'. You can lead this change, but you can't be expected to do it alone. You'll need friends in business and philanthropy to stand with you. You can count on me….The design of our schools, the way we teach, the way we budget -- has kept so much human energy locked up inside. Let's unleash it."

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