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Education Funding

Five Unanswered Questions About District Race to the Top

By Michele McNeil — December 05, 2012 2 min read
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In a matter of weeks, we’ll know which districts are sharing $400 million in the latest Race to the Top competition, which targets the district level.

But in the meantime, there are a lot of unanswered questions about this contest. Let’s start with these five:

1. Why are there 61 finalists when the maximum number of awards is 25, and frankly, why are there finalists at all? There are going to be a lot of disappointed folks once the announcement is made. The Education Department has said it will award between 15 and 25 grants, approximately. Yet the number of finalists is more than twice that, though whittled from an original list of 372 applications. What’s more, unlike in the original Race to the Top, finalists will not come to Washington to make their final pitches to teams of outside peer reviewers. Instead, these peer reviewers will meet among themselves with education department personnel supervising, discuss applications, then tweak the scores accordingly. So it’s unclear what purpose naming finalists even serves. The department has said that the finalists were chosen because of “natural breaks” in scoring, without elaborating. That must mean that the scores are very, very close? It will be interesting to see what the scores are before the peer reviewers tweak them, and after.

2. Speaking of peer reviewers, who are they? As in the original Race to the Top competition, Politics K-12 is renewing its call to disclose ASAP the identities of judges. Department officials refused to do so in the original Race to the Top, explaining that they feared “undue influence” on the judges from competitors trying to sway the outcome. They did, however, release general biographical information (such as how many were college professors). Once again, the department is not disclosing the identities in this contest. Officials have said that peer reviewer bios, along with scores and their written comments, will be released once the contest is over.

3. What exactly are these districts proposing to do? Unlike in the original Race to the Top competition when applications were put online at the state and federal levels, we know very little about how these districts would use the money. Most have not put their applications online, nor has the U.S. Department of Education. Federal officials say say it’s because of the “volume” of material involved.

4. Which of the finalists fill one of the two rural “buckets”? There are four categories in which districts could apply: A rural district in a Race to the Top state, a nonrural district in a Race to the Top state, a rural district in a non-Race to the Top state, and a nonrural district in a non-Race to the Top state. Now, it’s easy to figure out which district is in a Race to the Top state, but I can only guess at which districts applied in the rural category. And, bizarrely, the department won’t say which of the finalist districts applied as “rural” districts.

5. How will the final decision on who wins awards, and who doesn’t, be made? Because the department created these four buckets of potential winners, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his team will have far more discretion in making awards than in the original Race to the Top, when there was one slate of scores. Will he fund winners in all four buckets? Will he try to spend more money in non-Race to the Top states? Will he make sure a rural district wins, no matter what the final score? Perhaps more importantly, how will he make those decisions? So far, he hasn’t said.

What other questions do you have?

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