Wisconsin Finally in Line for Race to the Top Funding

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

When 2012’s Race to the Top winners were first announced, it appeared as though Wisconsin was on the losing side of the ledger once again. Now, thanks to a new round of funding from the federal government, the state could be in line for up to $30 million in grants.

Last week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Obama administration announced that five states – Colorado, New Mexico, Illinois, Oregon, and Wisconsin – will all be eligible to compete for $133 million in grants. These schools were all runners-up in the third iteration of Race to the Top (RTTT), which focused on early childhood education and awarded nine states with a total of $500 million.

After applying for $60 million in their last application for RTTT, Wisconsin will now have the opportunity to receive $30 million in this second round of funding. However, that federal money would have to be applied to education policies such as four-year-old kindergarten and other early intervention programs. In order to receive these funds, the state will likely have to submit a revised version of their original application.

This new application would include new reforms such as the state’s new Read to Lead program, which screens kindergarteners to provide stronger reading education in schools from a young age. State leaders are optimistic that this final round of scrutiny will be the one that rewards Wisconsin’s educational programs.

The news is the state’s first victory when it comes to RTTT, though it is a small one. Wisconsin did poorly in its first two attempts at the federal funding, which applied across K-12 education and emphasized reform in public school classrooms. The state finished 26th and 27th, respectively, amongst a field of over 35 states to fall well short of their goal.

This week’s results suggest a significant shift for Wisconsin. In an interview with Milwaukee Public Radio’s Erin Toner, Duncan suggested that the state’s first early childhood application for RTTT was deserving of funding, but that the grants were limited. Since the Department believed deserving states were left behind, the federal government opened up a special second round.

One major change that may have driven Wisconsin’s improvement could have come at an organizational level. The early childhood application was the first RTTT process primarily organized and completed by the state’s Department of Public Instruction and the Department of Children and Families. DPI’s intervention helped to create a more cohesive and convincing argument, which led to strong gains when it came to the RTTT judges. The end result could be one-time funds to address issues like preschool and Head Start programs.

However, these Race to the Top funds could end up being a burden even with proper implementation. Florida, a 2011 winner of federal grants, has struggled to implement the reforms listed on their application in the timeline passed down by the government. While Wisconsin won’t have to deal with as many restrictions thanks to their smaller grant size, these federal stipulations could still create problems when it comes time to implement them.

The state’s work to secure more federal funding has been a long time coming, and the improvement from a dismal first two rounds of applications is encouraging. RTTT is a program that has traditionally brushed the Badger State aside, but now that is changing. Wisconsin is closer to securing additional federal funds to support education, and, many believe, the people that will benefit from that change are some of the state’s youngest students.