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Race to the Top: Smaller is Better?

President Barack Obama proposed extending Race to the Top to school districts in his budget request this year. We still don't know whether Congress is going to take him up on that suggestion, but we don't have to wait until they do to see how the program operates when it's basically just at a district level. Two of the winners, the District of Columbia and Hawaii, include just one school district (not including charters, which sometimes count as their own district.)

And, if you think about it, small may have been an (inadvertent) advantage in the application process. Two of the other winners, Delaware and Rhode Island, are tiny states. A smaller size might make it easier to get buy-in and do the kind of outreach needed for a strong application. California may have recognized this edge. It's a huge state, but it worked with a relatively small group of districts for its Round 2 application, and ended up making the finals. (Scorers did note that they were dismayed that only a small percentage of districts in the state were participating.)

This opens up an important question and one I wonder if Congress is considering when it decides whether to extend Race to the Top to districts: Would single school districts have an advantage over whole states in a possible Round 3 of the competition? Besides possibly having an easier path in getting buy-in, districts might have an easier time tailoring their plans since they're likely to be dealing with a more homogeneous group of schools. Plus, if the Ed Dept. keeps those spending brackets in place, grants for districts are likely to be smaller, meaning more districts could win.

So, would it be fair for districts to compete alongside states for the grants in the future? Or should there be some sort of separation?

For the record, I'm getting ahead of myself here. The program hasn't been extended yet, and it's not a sure thing that it will be. The Senate appropriations passed a version of the education spending bill that would extend the program to districts, and we just don't know yet about the version passed by a House appropriations panel over the summer because they are keeping the bill secret for no discernible reason.

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