The list of Race to the Top finalists needs some whittling.

Monday, March 8, 2010

THE LIST of finalists for coveted Race to the Top dollars is not as exclusive as Education Secretary Arne Duncan suggested that it would be. Nearly one-third of those applying for the coveted education dollars were picked, and some states with sorry educational policies (such as New York) managed to get on the list. It's a far cry from the "very, very high bar" promised by Mr. Duncan -- but what really matters is the choice of the winners. There are enough finalists with refreshingly strong proposals that we still have hope that Mr. Duncan will deliver on his promise of rewarding only the best of the best.

Of the 41 applicants for the first round of competition for $4 billion in federal education dollars, 16 finalists were selected. The District of Columbia and 15 states had the highest scores from reviewers who used a 500-point grading scale based on commitment to improving teacher effectiveness, data systems, academic standards and low-performing schools. It was not surprising to see states such as Louisiana, Tennessee and Florida make the list because of their mandates that student achievement substantially factor into teacher evaluations. It's that kind of bold commitment to reform that Mr. Duncan sought to foster. Indeed, there was a flurry of welcome changes as legislatures around the nation enacted policies to better position their states for the competition.

So it's puzzling to see how New York, with its failure to enact new charter school laws and its ban on the use of student test scores in teacher tenure decisions, made the grade. Ditto Kentucky, where there is no charter law. Some observers who thought Ohio had a weak application wondered if its importance on the political map might be a factor. The District's selection was another surprise, albeit a welcome one that helps buttress Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee's critical reform efforts. In terms of academic achievement, the finalists are all over the map, ranging from high-performing states such as Massachusetts to struggling places such as the District and South Carolina. No scores were released, but officials say there will be complete transparency about the process when the final winners are announced next month.

Next, though, comes the finalists making their pitches in Washington. While education officials have set up an elaborate judging system with myriad reviewers, it is Mr. Duncan who has the power to pick the winning states. Much more than money is at stake. As Mr. Duncan told Education Week in launching Race to the Top, "folks out there don't quite believe we're going to keep a high bar . . . until we do it."

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