Sen. Shelby questions education grant competition

WASHINGTON Wed Jul 27, 2011 2:35pm EDT

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The "Race to the Top" program extends the reach of the federal government too far into states' public schools operations, a leading Republican senator said on Wednesday.

The Obama administration also risks neglecting poorer states by moving toward competitive education funding, Sen. Richard Shelby, the most powerful Republican on the Banking Committee, said at a hearing on education spending.

"I'm concerned that the scoring process for Race to the Top applications essentially mandates which interventions should be used by states and local school districts to improve student achievement," Shelby said.

"The federal government, I believe, should give states the flexibility to implement critical reforms," he added.

President Barack Obama created the competitive Race to the Top program in the 2009 economic stimulus plan to encourage states to adopt unified education standards, implement teaching reforms and foster the spread of autonomous charter schools.

States, eager for education money, competed heavily for more than $4 billion in grants, and the program's popularity led Congress to add $500 million in additional funding. In the budget he proposed in February, Obama suggested expanding it and using it as a model for three new education programs that would reward reforms and achievements.

The Bush administration's "No Child Left Behind" educational funding program, the master plan for federal education spending, has expired and has not been replaced.

At the hearing, Shelby asked Education Secretary Arne Duncan to consider changing the scoring process for Race to the Top. He also questioned the "substantial increase in the amount of discretionary funding that would be competitively awarded" in Obama's budget.

"I'm concerned that replacing formula funding programs with so-called competitive programs will result in the re-direction, obviously, of critical federal funds from smaller rural states to urban areas," said Shelby, of Alabama.

Recently, Republicans in Congress have grown skeptical of competitive grants. House of Representatives Transportation Committee Chairman John Mica has raised similar doubts about the "TIGER" grants that distributed millions from the stimulus plan to smaller transportation projects.

Duncan said his department would look at the scoring process, calling it a "work in progress." He added that new grant programs will make it easier for rural states to apply.

Duncan also said 84 percent of the funding Obama requested in his budget would be distributed by formula, in which money is given equally and automatically to the states.

"The overwhelming majority of our money will always be, will continue to be, formula funding," he said.

Along with worrying that Race to the Top injects too much into the daily workings of schools, the program's critics have said its emphasis on charter schools, which can be operated by private corporations, can hurt public education.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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