Special Report

All But 10 States Throw Hats Into Race to Top Ring

By Michele McNeil — January 20, 2010 5 min read
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Forty states and the District of Columbia applied for the first round of $4 billion in the Race to the Top Fund competition, which pits states against each other for desperately needed money, bragging rights, and leverage to implement controversial education reforms such as merit pay for teachers.

The 10 states that did not apply by the first round’s Jan. 19 deadline were: Alaska, Maryland, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Texas, Vermont, and Washington. Those states that did not apply, and any losing states from the first round, will be able to compete in the second round of competition, which is set for June.

“This exceeded our expectations,” U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who has made Race to the Top the most high-profile piece of his education reform agenda, said in a statement. “We received word from 40 states that they intended to apply, and thought there might be some drop-off. There wasn’t.”

Related Story:States Change Laws in Hopes of Race to Top Edge

States across the country rushed to pass legislation ahead of the Jan. 19 deadline for the first round of Race to the Top Fund applications in hopes of boosting their chances in the federal grant competition.

Read about the recent spate of policymaking activity related to the Race to the Top competition.

Of the 10 states that did not apply in the first round, most did not come as a surprise. Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, leveled sharp criticism at the Obama administration earlier this month, declaring his state would not compete for fear of a “federal takeover” of schools.

Rural states such as Montana and North Dakota had expressed reluctance because of the competition’s focus on education strategies they say may not work in their states, such as charter schools.

And Maryland state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick wants to seek legislative changes—to make it more difficult for teachers to get tenure and to link teacher evaluations to student test scores—before applying for the federal grants.

States that applied for the Race to the Top Fund by the Jan. 19 deadline for Round 1:








District of Columbia
















New Hampshire

New Jersey

New Mexico

New York

North Carolina





Rhode Island

South Carolina

South Dakota




West Virginia



Source: U.S. Department of Education

The current Race to the Top program is funded by $4 billion in one-time money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic-stimulus package passed by Congress last year. Today’s deadline comes as President Barack Obama announced his plans to seek $1.35 billion from Congress in his fiscal 2011 budget request to extend Race to the Top for another year and open it up to school districts. (“Obama to Seek $1.35 Billion Race to Top Expansion,” January 19, 2010.)

Grueling Process

Applying for Race to the Top is no small feat. Many states rushed in recent months to change their laws to better position themselves to win, such as by expanding their charter school sector, or linking student test scores to teacher evaluations. And the voluminous applications amounted to hundreds of pages; Florida’s application, for example, has 606 pages in the appendix alone.

Now, a group of 60 peer reviewers and alternates, who have been vetted and selected by the department, will evaluate the applications, scoring them on a 500-point scale. States will be graded against 30 different criteria, with some of the largest chunks of points awarded for states that demonstrate significant buy-in from local school districts and devise plans to evaluate teachers and principals based on student performance.

“We’ve never said there’s one question that’s a make or break,” Mr. Duncan said in a briefing call Tuesday. “This is a very, very difficult competition. This is not a race to the middle. This is a race to the top, and we meant what we said.”

First-round finalists will be asked to send a team to Washington, D.C., in March to make an in-person pitch to the reviewers—a high-stakes interview that will be factored into the point total before the winners are announced in April.

Mr. Duncan said the number of winners in the first round will be determined by the quality of the proposals, and that there is no predetermined cut-off score, or set number of winners. States with the highest scores will win.

When the winners are announced, the Education Department will post all of the applications online—from both the winners and losers—and include the points awarded and feedback from the reviewers. The second-round winners will be announced in September.

Mr. Duncan has made clear that he is interested only in bold, innovative reform pitches—and not just applications that further the status quo.

In response to a reporter’s question on Jan. 19, he spoke directly to the situation in New York state, where Gov. David Paterson, a Democrat, is building a $750 million Race to the Top award into his fiscal 2011 budget proposal.

“I love the confidence—for anyone to assume they’re getting this, that’s a bit of a leap of faith,” Mr. Duncan said. “If this money is simply plugging budget holes that’s not something we are going to be interested in.”

Confident Pitches

While the U.S. Department of Education is not yet making the applications available for public review, individual states are already doing so. It’s clear both from their pitches and the dollar amounts they’re seeking that applicants are confident.

Florida’s application reads: “Florida is better poised than any other state to implement RTTT successfully because Florida has learned from prior reforms and has built a valuable knowledge base of what is necessary to implement a successful comprehensive RTTT agenda.”

That Race to the Top agenda would cost $1.14 billion, Florida estimates. That’s far higher than the Education Department’s award range for a state of Florida’s size. The biggest states would get grants of up to $700 million, according to those nonbinding estimates.

The nation’s capital is also not shy about bragging. Its 184-page application proclaims: “The District of Columbia boasts the nation’s most exciting, dynamic reform agenda.” It’s asking for $112 million. (The Education Department’s range for the District and the smallest states is $20 million to $75 million.)

In Louisiana, creating effective teachers and school leaders is the overarching theme in the state’s Race to the Top application, said Paul G. Pastorek, the state’s schools chief.

“Everything in our application, across the four assurance areas, revolves around that,” Mr. Pastorek said yesterday, referring to the education reform priorities outlined in the stimulus law.

In Louisiana, one-third of the state’s districts and charter schools—representing about half of the state’s students—signed onto the state’s plan, he said. In agreeing to participate, districts had to commit to implementing the entirety of the plan.

“We had a pretty specific strategy of wanting people to make a rigorous analysis of whether they really wanted to be involved in this,” he said. “It had to be all or nothing.”

A key piece of the state’s Race to the Top plan is to overhaul teacher evaluations. That will involve tying 50 percent of a teacher’s annual review to growth in student achievement. Mr. Pastorek said the state must still work with school districts to figure out what other factors on which teacher evaluations should be based, but the goal would be for all districts participating in the Race to the Top initiatives to use a uniform system.

Staff Writer Lesli Maxwell contributed to this story
A version of this article appeared in the January 27, 2010 edition of Education Week


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