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Phase 2 RTT Finalists: Guess It Really Wasn't About Buy-In After All

When Secretary of Education Arne Duncan named the two Race to the Top Phase 1 winners earlier this year, his announcement speech emphasized the extent to which winners Delaware and Tennessee had received near universal buy-in from districts and teachers unions for their state Race to the Top plans. That, combined with comments from some RTT reviewers, led many observers to conclude that achieving widespread buy-in was a requirement for states to win RTT, and that, when it came to making trade-offs between bold reforms and widespread buy-in, states might do better to fall on the side of buy-in. Other informed observers insisted this was not the case, and Secretary Duncan seemed to affirm their analysis in recent remarks.

The list of Phase 2 finalists released yesterday seems to offer further confirmation that "buy-in" was not the be-all and end-all of RTT. Most of the 18 states (and D.C.!*) named yesterday were Phase 1 finalists, and since reviewer scores won't be made public until after the final awards are made, we can't yet tell whether their Phase 2 applications scored better or worse than in Phase 1.

But a look at the 5 first-time Phase 2 finalists is informative. We'll set aside two of these finalists for now--Maryland, because it did not submit a Phase 1 application, and Hawai'i, because the fact that it has only one LEA, which is also the SEA, makes it unique.

Of the remaining 3 states, two--California and New Jersey--particularly seem to dispel the myth that widespread buy-in was critical to RTT success. While a number of states pulled out the stops to dramatically increase the number of LEAs signed onto their applications in RTT Phase 2, California did the opposite. The number of RTT "participating" LEAs in California fell from 804 in Phase 1 to 302 in Phase 2. Rather than seeking to craft an application that brought in as many districts as possible, California engaged deeply with leading, large progressive districts in the state, crafting a proposal that would build on and support their reform efforts. Some in-state observers credit this strategy with raising California's ranking from 27th in Phase 1 to a finalist this time out.

In New Jersey, Governor Chris Christie, who's been waging wars against the state's teachers unions since taking office earlier this year, made news by pulling the RTT application his own Education Commissioner, Brett Schundler, crafted to win the support of the New Jersey Education Association, and instead submitting his own application without NJEA support (or changes made to garner it**). New Jersey does have slightly more LEAs signed on this time--387, as opposed to 378--and signatures from 21 local teachers unions as opposed to 4, but in a state with over 500 districts those aren't big changes.

California, New Jersey, and Arizona all had rates of LEA and local union buy-in that were lower than the average across all Phase 2 applicants. On the flip side, two states that did go all out to build buy-in--Michigan and Wisconsin--did not make the finalist cut-off.

*Disclosure: I live in D.C. and am proud to see my home state, er, town recognized as an RTT finalist.
**I'm still looking for a good explanation of what the actual substantive differences were between Schundler's application and the one that was actually submitted.

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