As Race to the Top Winners Announced, Spotlight Now Turns to Losers

Delaware and Tennessee, two states that have aggressively pursued school reform, are the winners of the first round of the U.S. Department of Education’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top competition. Because the awards are based on student population, Delaware will win $100 million and Tennessee $500 million at a time when most recession-weary states are scrambling to close widening budget gaps.

The fact that only two of the 16 finalists made the last cut was cheered by reformers, who publicly lobbied the DOE to set the bar very high, and award only those states that made a massive commitment to change. Tennessee exhibited its determination to win by reconvening its legislature to push through bills removing its cap on charter schools, as well as overhauling its teacher-evaluation system to include student achievement data, both key requirements in the competition. Delaware was rewarded for a decade of steady progress toward comprehensive reform.

But maybe even more interesting is the list of “losers."

The DOE ranked each of the 40 states (plus the District of Columbia) that competed for a piece of the pie by total score, so states could see how close (Georgia just missed as No. 3) or how far (South Dakota was No. 41) they were from the top. One of the surprises: New York (No. 15) and Washington, D.C. (No. 16), which have had high-profile reform efforts underway for years, were much closer to the cutoff for the top 16 finalists than previously known.

Besides state pride, the rankings matters because as round one of Race to the Top ends, round two begins, and states don’t have a whole lot of time to improve their scores. Updated applications, showing the progress they make this spring, are due June 1. States rise in the ranks depending on how many points they earn by meeting goals specified by the department. For example, states earn points by adopting high “college and career ready” standards, developing more effective ways to recruit and retain talented teachers, turning around their lowest-performing schools, and overhauling teacher-evaluation programs to include student-achievement data.

As states got busy analyzing their results (as well as those of their competitors), the American Federation of Teachers, which represents teachers in most of the big-city school districts, immediately sent out a press release noting that neither of the winners is home to a big urban district, and pointedly reminding states that they get extra points if their reform plan shows that they are collaborating with teachers. Some of the losers, such as Florida (No. 4), California (No. 27), New York and Washington, D.C., have been engaged in tough battles with teachers unions over just the kinds of reforms the DOE is requiring. Whether the pressure increases on both unions and state reformers to find more common ground before the next round of applications are due will be fascinating to watch. “It could be a very interesting spring,” said Joe Williams of Democrats for Education Reform.