Where Are They Now? Evaluating Results from the Recovery Act
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
By Christopher Haight
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA, Recovery Act) is now over two-and-a-half years old. Within that time frame, over $200 billion in new grants, loans, and contracts was awarded in order to spur economic growth, maintain employment, and invest in various national priorities. While the open grant opportunities have come and gone, their effects are still being felt as some of the most high profile programs continue to influence the national agenda.
High Speed Rail
Among some of the most controversial components of the Recovery Act was the inclusion of $8 billion for the development of High-Speed Rail (HSR) in the United States. While a large sum relative to what the United States normally invests in any year for HSR, it
still was more of a (small) down payment, given that full implementation of any of the planned HSR lines would stretch easily into the tens of billions of dollars.
Since announcing the initial recipients of HSR funds from the Recovery Act, HSR has been among the most volatile. The 2010 midterm elections swept into power skeptics of HSR, such as Governors Rick Scott (Florida), Scott Walker (Wisconsin), and Josh Kasich (Ohio), who all returned the awarded stimulus funds, fearing the development of HSR would ultimately prove too costly for their states to handle. Recently, California announced its own HSR plans were already due for dramatic change, with the ultimate price tag rising from $33 billion to $98 billion and timeline for completion extended.
Earlier this year in February, Vice President Joe Biden proposed a six-year $53 billion investment into a HSR network, only to have it go the path of so many other proposals in Congress - nowhere. Given the new unwillingness of states to invest, cost overruns as plans are revised, and pervasive focus
on deficits in Congress, it is unlikely this Recovery Act investment will result in the envisioned network of HSR that is much more common in Europe or Asia. Despite this diminished outlook, the investment may still help make improvements to efficiency and safety of the rail networks that do exist and provide marginal improvements to areas of the country where rail is more heavily used, such as the Northeast.
Race to the Top
As the signature effort of the Obama administration in the field of education, Race to the Top was heralded for its size (over $4 billion allocated to this one competitive grant program) and scope (taking on everything from charter schools to teacher evaluations to achievement gaps and more). Through the Recovery Act funds, the administration awarded 11 states and the District of Columbia (D.C.) for their education reform efforts.
Now, those recipients are in the process of implementing their ambitious reform agendas, some of which were set by preceding administrations of the opposite party. Unlike the controversy over high speed rail funding, newly elected Governors in Florida, Georgia, and Ohio have all retained funding despite their initial reservations during their campaigns.
That is not to say implementation has gone off entirely smoothly, however. All recipients have submitted amendments to their original approved applications, many involving delaying the proposed timeline (for a list of amendments, see http://www2.ed.gov/programs/racetot
hetop/amendments/index.html). Furthermore, newly released data has called into question the ability of Race to the Top to achieve actual results in terms of academic improvement for students. Earlier this month, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released the results of Reading and Mathematics assessments, showing recipients Hawaii and D.C. leading Race to the Top winners in improving in both areas. The remaining recipients showed little to no significant changes in academic performance, and New York even saw a decrease in its 4th grade math results.
Still, Race to the Top remains a priority at the federal level and garners
considerable interest from states. The competition expanded in 2011 to include a $500 million competition, known as Race to the Top: Early Learning Challenge, which drew 35 applicants. Race to the Top is also holding a third competition, although this time inviting only the unfunded finalists from Phase II to resubmit revised proposals.
In addition, the U.S. Senate is aiming to include formal authorization for the program in its latest draft of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). If it passes with Race to the Top included, that would likely put the grant program on more solid footing annually.