The pressure campaign has been underway for months as Education Secretary Arne Duncan travels the country delivering a blunt message to state officials who have resisted change for decades: Embrace reform or risk being shut out.
"What we're saying here is, if you can't decide to change these practices, we're not going to use precious dollars that we want to see creating better results; we're not going to send those dollars there," Obama said in an Oval Office interview. "And we're counting on the fact that, ultimately, this is an incentive, this is a challenge for people who do want to change."
On Friday, Obama will officially announce the "Race to the Top," a competition for $4.35 billion in grants. He wants states to use funds to ease limits on charter schools, tie teacher pay to student achievement and move for the first time toward common academic standards. It is part of a broader effort to improve school achievement with a $100 billion increase in education funding, more money for community colleges and an increase in Pell Grants for college students.
Duncan has used the Race to the Top fund, created through the economic stimulus law, as leverage to drive the president's education agenda in Rhode Island, Tennessee, Colorado and elsewhere. Never has an education secretary been given so much money by Congress with such open-ended authority, according to current and former federal education officials. Margaret Spellings, Duncan's predecessor under George W. Bush, had a tiny fraction of that amount at her disposal.
[Note: The Washington Post apparently thinks that decentralized school systems hamper education. In fact, public education began to fall apart with the centralization that occurred following the launch of Russia's Sputnik - led, incidentally, by Harvard president James Conant - a sort of 1950s Larry Summers]
In trying to reverse those trends, he faces the same decentralized educational system and resistance to change that hampered Bush's No Child Left Behind law, which required annual testing to hold schools accountable for closing achievement gaps. Like his predecessor, Obama is using the federal treasury to power through the obstacles.