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The Forum

A Journal of Applied Research in Contemporary Politics

Ed. by Disalvo, Daniel / Stonecash, Jeffrey

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Volume 12, Issue 1


Presidential Policymaking: Race to the Top, Executive Power, and the Obama Education Agenda

Patrick McGuinn
  • Corresponding author
  • Associate Professor of Political Science and Education, Drew University, 36 Madison Ave, Madison NJ 07940, USA
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Published Online: 2014-05-08 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/for-2014-0017


This article offers an analysis of the origins, evolution, and impact of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top (RTTT) competitive grant program and places it in the broader context of the debate over President Obama’s aggressive use of executive power. Faced with divided control and partisan gridlock in Congress – which has been unable to reauthorize ESEA, the largest federal education program – the Obama administration has opted to make education policy from the executive branch. While many observers have questioned the expansive interpretation of statutory and regulatory authority that undergirds RTTT – and the NCLB waiver process – there is little doubt that the efforts have had a significant impact on the national political discourse around education and pushed many states to propose or enact important policy changes, particularly around charter schools, common core standards, and teacher evaluation processes. Along with health care, education reform is likely to be remembered as the most significant policy legacy of the Obama administration. However, while the Affordable Care Act was drafted by Congress and secured through the “normal” legislative process, the Obama education agenda has largely been designed and enacted through unilateral executive branch authority. As a result, these actions may well set significant precedents for the separation of powers as well as for education policy.


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About the article

Patrick McGuinn

Patrick McGuinn is Associate Professor of Political Science and Education and Chair of the Political Science Department at Drew University. His first book, No Child Left Behind and the Transformation of Federal Education Policy, 19652005, (Kansas, 2006) was honored as a Choice outstanding academic title and he is also the editor (with Paul Manna) of Education Governance for the 21st Century: Overcoming the Structural Barriers to School Reform (Brookings Institution Press 2013).

Corresponding author: Patrick McGuinn, Associate Professor of Political Science and Education, Drew University, 36 Madison Ave, Madison NJ 07940, USA, e-mail:

Published Online: 2014-05-08

Published in Print: 2014-04-01

Was Race to the Top Authorized?” Education Week Politics K-12 blog, 6 May 2010.

“An Interview with Arne Duncan,” Education Week, 2 December 2009.

The notable exception here was in ending de jure segregation but this effort was pushed more by the courts than Congress and ED.

Sara Mead, “Competitive Grants Are Nothing New,” Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook, Education Week blog, 3 August 2010. http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/sarameads_policy_notebook/2010/08/competitive_grants_are_nothing_new.html.

Stimulus Watch, Special Report 2, September 2009.

The prominent role played by foundations and consultants in Race to the Top – and their impact on the outcome of the competition – is another cause for concern. The Gates Foundation, for example, provided $250,000 in financial support to 24 states (more than half of all RTT applicants) and nine of the twelve winners had Gates funding. And a variety of groups such as Wireless generation and Mass Insight advised states on how to craft winning applications. There are two separate problems here potentially. The first is that consultants might be able to “spin” state applications and presentations in ways that skew the results away from worthier states. The second issue is that the role of foundations and consultants – many of whom were involved in multiple state applications – may serve to create a kind of group think among states that reduces the amount of variation and innovation across state reform efforts.

Sam Dillon, “Education Grant Effort Faces Late Opposition,” New York Times, 19 January 2010.

Data from the U.S. Department of Education’s 2007–2008 Schools and Staffing Survey reveal that, on average, school districts dismiss or decline to renew only 2.1% of teachers (tenured and nontenured) for poor performance each year. See Patrick McGuinn, Ringing the Bell for K–12 Teacher Tenure Reform (Washington, DC: Center for American Progress, February 2010), available at www.americanprogress.org/issues/2010/02/teacher_tenure_reform.html (accessed November 19, 2010).

In 2009, Sandi Jacobs of the National Center for Teacher Quality reported that “no state has really done anything to ensure that tenure is meaningful.” (Personal correspondence with the author, August 12, 2009.)

Analysis conducted by the author in August 2010. This data is only meant to be illustrative.

Dana Goldstein, “The Education Wars,” The American Prospect, 23 March 2009. See also Richard Colvin, “Straddling the Democratic Divide,” Education Next 9, no. 2 (2009).

Citation Information: The Forum, Volume 12, Issue 1, Pages 61–79, ISSN (Online) 1540-8884, ISSN (Print) 2194-6183, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/for-2014-0017.

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