Despite criticism, state sparks valuable discussion about federal education programs

In a decision sparking heated debate and condemnation, the state has turned down a federal grant opportunity for early learning because it is not adequately organized to administer these funds. While many are expressing outrage over this decision, it raises important questions about the value of federally funded education programs such as Race to the Top.

Under the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, states can apply for up to $100 million in funds to increase access to quality early education for low income school children. However, Acting State Superintendent of Education Ollie Tyler announced that Louisiana would not compete because the state essentially has its hands too full already in red tape and lacks any “clear governance structure.”  Furthermore, Tyler contested that a federal handout “will not effectively meet the needs of our children.” This admission speaks volumes about the need to downsize consolidated control over education and transition towards local autonomy, efficient spending, and vouchers, rather than relying on arbitrary spending to achieve educational progress.

The efficacy of Race to the Top and similar programs has come under heavy scrutiny, especially since Louisiana was ignored earlier this year when the Obama Administration announced the “winning” states, despite exhibiting progress superior to those winning states. Critics of Race to the Top pointed to the dubious results as evidence that states were being baited with financial incentives to fall in line with uniform federal policies for education, which may potentially be adverse to an individual state’s needs.

What the state should do is replicate the successful formula of public education in New Orleans post-Katrina by increasing autonomy on the local level and reducing the congested, unresponsive control of centralized bureaucracy. School systems should administer early education according to their needs and not be held hostage to the mass confusion referenced by Tyler, nor should they view federal outlays as a prerequisite to progress.

As frustrating as Louisiana’s bureaucratic incompetence is, this ordeal opens up an important dialogue. National standards are not imperative for success, and neither is doling out hundreds of millions of dollars for conforming to the wants of a program with a dubious success record. There is inherent danger in states conditioning their policies to government money, rather than developing self-sustaining programs of their own.