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Arne Duncan Picks 16 Race to Top District Winners

Sixteen winners—including three charter school organizations—will share $400 million in the Race to the Top district competition, the U.S. Department of Education announced today.

Traditional districts such as Carson City, Nev., Guilford County, N.C., and New Haven Unified, Calif., also are sharing the prize, as are two large consortia of school districts in Kentucky and Washington state.

Miami-Dade is the biggest urban district on the list, having just won the coveted Broad Prize this year.

The charter school winners are IDEA public schools and the Harmony Science Academy consortia, both in Texas, and KIPP in the District in Columbia.

The rest of the winners, who beat out 372 total applicants, are: Charleston County, S.C.; Galt Joint Union Elementary District, Calif., Green River Regional Education Cooperative, Ky.; Iredell-Statesville, N.C.; Lindsay Unified, Calif.; Metropolitan School District of Warren Township in Indianapolis; Middletown City, N.Y.; Puget Sound Education Service District, Wash.; and St. Vrain Valley, Colo.

The grants range from $10 million to $40 million, depending on the winner's enrollment. Two districts or groups of districts snagged the largest grants: the Green River cooperative in Kentucky and the Puget Sound co-op in Washington, which includes Seattle Public Schools.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the winners' circle includes "a really good mix" of both districts that are already education-reform leaders, and districts that have not received as much attention.

"We know that school districts have been hungry to drive reform at the local level," Duncan said in a call today with reporters.

More than 300 outside peer reviewers helped score the applications. A single point was all that separated the applicant that ranked 16, and the two that tied for 17th place and not funded, which were Mapleton Public Schools in Colorado and Jefferson City Schools in Missouri. So is Duncan convinced he got the 16 very best proposals?

"This is a human process," he said during the call. "We've had great folks work really, really hard." As to whether he could reassure folks this is a perfect slate, he said, "Of course not. ... Peer reviewers show really, really good judgment. We simply funded down the slate and ran out of money."

Duncan said there are "zero politics" involved in picking the winners.

Given that the department estimated handing out between 15 and 25 awards, the number of awards is on the low end and leaves most of the 61 finalists disappointed. Big-city districts such as Boston, New York City, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, for example, were left out of the winners' circle.

This latest version of the well-known Race to the Top brand is meant to spark improvements at the district level, particularly in the area of personalized learning. The contest was also meant to spread Race to the Top money around in states that had not won before—and among districts in rural America.

And indeed, 11 of the 16 districts or groups of districts are in states that did not win the original 12 Race to the Top grants for states. Few of the winners, however, serve mostly rural students, with the largest concentration in the Kentucky co-op that won. That co-op represents 24 rural districts.

The contest was not without controversy, as many large districts considered front-runners (such as Los Angeles) failed to turn in complete applications because they couldn't secure the support of their teachers' unions.

And as a final bit of trivia, winner St. Vrain Schools in Colorado has a great track record when it comes to the Obama administration's competitions. It was the top-scoring district in the Investing in Innovation contest in 2010.

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