Two years ago I wrote that the federal Race to the Top state-grant program was likely a bad bet. “…even if states are successful in getting fistfuls of federal cash, how are they supposed to implement reforms?” I wondered.  “Cold hard cash wasn’t enough to buy off reform opponents during Round I-even during the worst economy in recent history. So what makes Secretary Duncan think that they’ll buy in once states get RTT money?”

Well today Department of Education Secretary Duncan announced a new Race to the Top District (RTT-D) competition focusing on the classroom level. The program offers nearly $400 million in grants for school districts that create plans for individualized classroom instruction that will close achievement gaps and prepare students for college and work.

The RTT-D proposal will be available for public comment until June 8. The application will be released in July and due in October. Awards will be announced by the end of the year.

The original Race to the Top (RTT) state-grants competition was launched in 2009. States that promised to improve academic standards, teacher evaluations, failing schools, data systems, and support charter school growth were eligible for a share of $4.3 billion in federal grants. Eleven states and the District of Columbia won RTT grants in 2010.

According to the Department of Education today RTT “has inspired dramatic education reform nationwide.” RTT-D is supposed to build on this foundation “supplying teachers with the strategies and tools they need to help every student learn at his or her own pace.”

Trouble is, the department’s own first-year RTT progress report released earlier this year showed that none of the original winners lived up to their applications. As Education Next reported:

The U.S. Department of Education has notified New York that it could lose some of its Race to the Top funds if it does not comply with the goals it set when it applied for the funds.  In its application, the state promised to develop a new teacher evaluation system and the state’s teachers union leader signed on to the plan, but now teachers unions in many school districts are refusing to cooperate with these efforts.

Congress responded like it always does when faced with federal failure: it threw more hard-earned taxpayer dollars at it, approving an extra $550 million for more Race to the Top rounds in the final omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2012. As Joy Pullman wrote in the Weekly Standard, “Despite decades of similar experience with large programs like Head Start and No Child Left Behind, [Congress] apparently still hasn’t learned the federal government isn’t good at a great many things—particularly education.”

Even so, Duncan hailed this latest RTT iteration, saying, “With this competition, we are inviting districts to show us how they can personalize education for a set of students in their schools. We need to take classroom learning beyond a one-size-fits-all model and bring it into the 21st century.”

Given its track record, what makes Fed ED think it’s an expert on education–21st century or otherwise?

 As I wrote two years ago, “For all the good intentions behind it, Race to the Top has all the makings of yet another failed grand idea. The only difference is the price tag. Its emphasis on competition is solid but misses the mark entirely by putting some of the most competition-averse entities-state and local bureaucracies and special interests-in charge. Better to award RTT funds to parents in the form of grants, and let them decide which schools are on track to bring their children to the top.”