By Elvina Nawaguna
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Four years after President Barack Obama launched his "Race to the Top," education initiative, the administration said on Tuesday the program was boosting high school graduation rates and encouraging reform at U.S. schools.
Since the first competitive grant was awarded in 2010, 18 states and the District of Columbia have received a total of $4.35 billion in federal grants.
"The compelling need for change was as clear as it was urgent," Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters on a conference call following the release of a report that assesses the progress of the program. "Race to the Top reflected our deep belief that carrots, rather than sticks, lead to lasting change."
The Race to the Top grant program was part of the president's 2009 economic stimulus package and was intended to encourage reforms in K-through-12 education. States and schools that participate in the program and compete successfully are expected to develop rigorous standards and better assessments as well as to come up with innovative ways to improve performance in the lowest-performing schools.
The graduation rate among U.S. high schools is now at 80 percent, the highest rate on record, the report said, adding that about 40,000 schools have used the grants.
But the initiative has been criticized by some organizations, such as the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, that said that some of the gains cited by the administration may be due to other factors.
"The policy agenda put forth by Race to the Top is a severe mismatch for the opportunity gap that drives the achievement gap that Race to the Top wants to close," said Elaine Weiss, national coordinator, of the Broader Bolder Approach to Education Campaign, a program of the institute.
She said the grants may benefit schools that are already performing at high levels, while not doing enough to help some troubled schools.
The School Superintendents Association, which has been critical of the program from its start, said that federal funding should be available to all schools and states regardless of whether they can compete for the grants or not.
"The continued reliance on competitive funding creates winners and losers, and reinforces and exacerbates learning and resource gaps," said Noelle Ellerson, associate executive director for policy and advocacy at superintendents' group.
(Reporting by Elvina Nawaguna, editing by G Crosse)