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Will Small Districts Even Bother Competing in New Race to Top?

T-minus 76 days until applications for the $400 million Race to the Top district competition are due. Will your district be applying?

Odds are, probably not.

Not only is the 116-page application complex and demanding, but the eligibility requirements will make it difficult for a majority of districts to apply.

More than half the nation's school districts are not eligible to apply on their own for the Race to the Top competition for districts because their enrollments are too small. To apply, districts—or groups of districts—must have at least 2,000 students.

But the U.S. Department of Education provides another avenue for small districts and groups of small districts that can't meet that 2,000-student threshold: to band together with NINE other districts to submit a proposal. And this must be done in less than three months time.

(UPDATE 8/16: I clarified the eligibility requirements above to make clear that a group of fewer than 10 districts can apply if they can cross the 2,000-student threshold. The 10-district requirement is a fail safe for very small districts that together can't reach a combined 2,000 students.)

The latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that 47 percent of the nation's school districts had fewer than 1,000 students in 2009-10. Another 24 percent had between 1,000 and 2,499 students (so it's impossible from this data set to figure out the exact percentage of schools with fewer than 2,000 kids). Regardless, it's clear that more than half of the nation's schools have fewer than 2,000 kids. And so these districts face big hurdles in applying for the money.

Clearly, the federal Education Department had to design a competition that they could realistically judge and manage. The department also wants to get maximum impact for its limited dollars so minimum enrollment requirements can be set. And to its credit, the department seeks to spread the money around by judging the competition in four buckets—whether a district is rural or not, and in a Race to the Top state or not. But how many rural districts will even apply given the eligibility requirements?

We will know more by Aug. 30, which is when districts are being asked to let the department know that they plan to apply. But it doesn't take much to guess that the applicant pool will be dominated by large, mostly urban districts.

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