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Race to Top: Duncan Dishes out Praise, and Sympathy

Posted by guest blogger Sean Cavanagh.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offered plenty of praise for the winners in the Race to the Top competition today. But he also directed some of his biggest compliments for those who fell short.

Only the top 10 finishers were awarded a share of $3.4 billion left in Round Two of the federal grant competition. Some prognosticators were surprised—and disappointed—that states that have drawn credit for overhauling their education policies, such as Colorado and Louisiana, didn't make the cut.

In a conference call with reporters, Duncan sounded disappointed, too. He called Colorado, which ranked 17th, a "national leader" in adopting innovative ed policy. "I was very, very sorry, quite frankly, we weren't able to fund them," he said.

Of Louisiana, the secretary said he "would have loved to have funded" the state, a near-miss at 13th. And California, which came in 16th? The secretary noted that he was "sad and disappointed" to not be able to give that state funding.

But, ultimately, Duncan said, there wasn't enough money to fund all the proposals the reviewers deemed meritorious. (Though the administration has asked Congress to devote another $1.35 billion to Race to the Top through the federal budget process.) The secretary also said that he left the process of setting the final rankings to the application reviewers, noting that he did not "override anybody," or change the rankings set by reviewers.

Some observers have tried to divine political motives behind the Race to the Top rankings, but Duncan said the Democratic or Republican political leanings of states had no influence the process. He also geography was not a consideration, despite most of the awardees being East Coast states.

Overall, the competition has had the desired effect, the secretary argued: It has compelled states across the country (the winners and losers) to rethink policies on academic standards, teacher-effectiveness, school turnarounds, and other topics. The U.S. Department of Education will hold the winning states to the promises in their applications, he added.

"This may be the end of phase two, but it's not the end of Race to the Top," Duncan said. He noted the jumps in many applicants' scores between rounds, saying their efforts amounted to a "breathtaking amount of reform."

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