Image: trueStatement: “What we’ve seen in other school districts that have actually qualified for Race to the Top funds is that it’s costing them money. … It would not have in any way helped with our budget problem,” San Diego Unified school board President Richard Barrera said on the KPBS program These Days on Nov. 8.

Determination: True

Analysis: Race to the Top was a competition earlier this year between states for federal funds. States had to pledge to alter their academic standards, tie teacher evaluation to student performance and make other changes in school policy in exchange for the money.

San Diego Unified decided not to sign up, largely because the school board majority disagreed with the controversial move of linking teacher evaluation to student test scores. So does the teachers union, which has strongly backed that majority.

Barrera and other school board members were criticized for that decision because they turned away additional money in the middle of a budget crunch. When someone called in to KPBS to ask how the school district could push for a parcel tax while turning down Race to the Top, Barrera argued that Race to the Top wouldn’t have helped with its budget problems and could even have cost it money.

Barrera didn’t explain his point fully on KPBS but brought it up later when we asked: Race to the Top money is specifically earmarked for the changes that school districts are supposed to carry out.

The U.S. Department of Education says that is true. So the money couldn’t just be used to cover the San Diego Unified deficit — it would have to pay for the changes that school districts agree to make under Race to the Top. So Barrera is correct that the money would not have helped solve its budget problems.

It’s also true that elsewhere in the country, some school districts in the winning states have complained that making the changes would cost them more than the Race to the Top grant, as Barrera said.

For instance, in Ohio, the Plain Dealer reported that a school district in Geauga County calculated it would have gotten $100,000 but needed to spend $212,000 on the needed changes.

And in Rockville Centre Union Free School District on Long Island, Superintendent William Johnson estimates it would get less than $10 per student from the Race to the Top grant that New York state won, but would need to spend $13 to $15 per student for a new teacher evaluation system.

The media has reported those cases as a bit of a surprise since states were eager to get the grants. But because many of the winning states are just calculating the costs now and planning their changes, it is too soon to say whether it is common or rare for Race to the Top costs to outstrip grants, said Deborah Rigsby, director of federal legislation for the National School Boards Association.

It’s impossible to say whether the Race to the Top costs would have exceeded a grant for San Diego Unified. California didn’t win the competition, so we’ll never know exactly how much the state would have gotten. And we don’t know how much the school district would have gotten from California.

Even the estimates for what San Diego Unified might have gotten vary wildly, from $2.5 million annually (a rough estimate done by San Diego Unified staff) to $8.75 million annually (an internal analysis done by the California Department of Education).

And San Diego Unified never estimated what it would cost to carry out the Race to the Top changes, partly because there were few specific details when the school district was asked to sign up.

Though it isn’t how clear how common the problem is or whether it would have affected San Diego Unified, Barrera was also correct when he said that other school districts that won Race to the Top funds could end up spending more than they get. So both parts of this statement are accurate.

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Note: The original version of this post contained the wrong graphic indicating our determination. Our apologies.

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Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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