Federal strings

The short version of the controversy over Nevada deciding to seek $175 million in federal "Race to the Top" schooling grants goes like this:

The weak economy has left Nevada schools short of revenue. "Race to the Top" participation would provide more federal dollars, but the program requires states to use student test scores to track how well students have advanced under individual teachers, whereupon those individual teachers are to be rewarded or dismissed based on those results.

Rewarding or firing teachers based on how students actually advance under their tutelage would be a good thing, restoring a measure of accountability more reminiscent of the free market, the argument goes. As a bonus, we could also get more federal dollars. What's to lose?

Why, then, are so many states and school districts saying no thanks to "Race to the Top"? Because it's another jobs program designed to stick local taxpayers with the bills.

Texas won't compete for up to $700 million of the federal money because the program "smacks of a federal takeover of our public schools," Republican Gov. Rick Perry announced in January.

In California, state Superintendent Jack O'Connell pointed out last year that "any monies won in this competition will not be used to cover operational costs, restore lost funding or supplement existing programs." They can only be used to hire new educrats to set up new "tracking and monitoring" programs -- for which funding will soon run out.

The Obama administration program is "premised on the belief that higher spending on public education improves educational performance," noted Dan Lips of the Heritage Foundation. "But decades of experience have demonstrated the limits of increasing federal education spending. Since 1985, real federal spending on K-12 education has increased by 138 percent. But higher federal spending has not corresponded with equal improvement in American educational performance. ...

"While states and local policymakers may welcome federally funded fiscal relief, they should recognize that new federal dollars will invariably come with new strings and bureaucratic costs," including a ban on using the funds to promote school choice, which saves tax money while enhancing academic achievement, Mr. Lips warned.

Instead of further increasing federal spending and debt -- and limiting parental choice -- Mr. Lips says Washington "should help states meet current fiscal challenges by offering state policymakers greater ability to prioritize how federal education dollars are allocated. ..."

Judge individual teachers based on student performance? Sure. But "Race to the Top" is not the unalloyed source of "free" money that it first appears.