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Mr. President: Improving the U.S. Education System Is Not a Competitive Sport

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Imagine if before March Madness started, individual teams and athletes competed for additional pots of money. The winning applicants would receive extra funds to do things like hire more coaches or purchase cutting-edge training equipment. Would we think this was a system that was fair and beneficial to the quality of league play as a whole? Do we think the most deserving scholar athletes would benefit? Would we see it as a fair system for less-resourced colleges?

Of course not. Yet this is the kind of approach that the Obama Administration has taken with education. In no other area has the president striven harder to make his mark as a reformer by signaling that he is unafraid to shake up the education establishment, challenge old assumptions and dramatically step up the federal government's role as a catalyst for change. And if one area stands out as the hallmark of this approach, it's the emphasis on competitive grant programs rather than on programs that target the nation's least advantaged children.

Although the large majority of federal education dollars are still spent on formula-funded and other targeted programs, these programs have not captured the Administration's imagination or attention. Rather, acting more like a private foundation than a national government, the Administration has shown that its passion and budget priorities lie with competitive grant programs. The best-known examples are the U.S. Department of Education's various Race to the Top initiatives for K-12 education, the "First in the World" initiative for higher education programs and the competitions surrounding community colleges.

I certainly believe in the value of competition in getting the most out of people and have felt the thrill when my children, and now grandchildren, make the winning touchdown or bring home exceptional test results. But competition has its time and place, and what this Administration sees as a powerful lever to impose their ideas I view as a troubling trend that moves us away from the basic rule that the federal government's investment in education should be precisely targeted on assuring that all children have the opportunity to receive a quality education.

In accepting the Democratic nomination back in 2008, then-candidate Obama noted,

America, now is not the time for small plans. Now is the time to finally meet our moral obligation to provide every child a world-class education, because it will take nothing less to compete in the global economy.

I hope that moving forward, the President can recapture that sentiment and shift away from thinking about improving our education system as a competitive sport.

Arnold L. Mitchem, president of the Council for Opportunity in Education (COE) since its founding in 1986, has been a voice for low-income, first-generation students and individuals with disabilities his entire career. COE supports and advocates for federally funded TRIO Programs, which are the largest discretionary program in the U.S. Department of Education and now serve more than 872,000 students at 1,200 colleges and universities.