Updated at 8:58 a.m. on March 5.
Fifteen states and the District of Columbia made the cut Thursday as finalists for the first round of the Race to the Top program -- a few too many for some education experts.
"I expected a finalist list of 5 and was quietly hoping for 3. My worst-case scenario was 12. I never would have imagined 16," wrote Andrew Smarick, a visiting fellow at the Fordham Institute, after the Education Department's announcement. Before the announcement, the nonprofit Education Trust had released a statement saying, "any proposals that don't shoot for the moon need to be left in the dust."
Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion grant competition, is recognized as the Obama administration's signature education initiative. Despite representing a small portion of the $100 billion-plus the Education Department got in last year's stimulus package, the program carries heightened importance in both the political and policy arenas.
Forty states and the District applied for first-round funding, and many of them pushed through legislative changes to make themselves more competitive as applicants.
Florida and Louisiana, the only two states rated "highly competitive" in a preliminary analysis last summer by the New Teacher Project, made the cut. The other states chosen are Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee and the District of Columbia. The winners will be announced in April.
There is some discomfort surrounding the process through which the finalists were chosen. Fifty-eight anonymous peer reviewers independently read and scored the applications. Rick Hess, director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute, has issued harsh criticism of the administration's decision not to publish the identity of the review panelists.
Hess and Tom Vander Ark, a partner in an education public affairs firm, were struck by the challenge of reviewing the applications -- some of which were more than 800 pages. "The differences in the language [among the proposals] are not that significant, but the differences of the states' ability to execute are substantial," said Vander Ark, who added that the scoring would inevitably be subjective.
Both Timothy Daly, president of the New Teacher Project, and Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of Education Sector, expressed surprise to see New York among the finalists. The Empire State's application did not appear especially competitive, Rotherham said -- New York failed to enact a law to increase the amount of charter schools permitted in the state, and it doesn't allow test scores to be used as a factor in teacher tenure decisions, two reasons insiders weren't optimistic about the state's chances.
The 16 finalists scored over 400 on a 500-point scale used to grade the proposals. In mid-March, representatives will come to the nation's capital to make their case to the panel that reviewed their applications. With states hurting for money, finalists are sure to pull out all the stops. Once this round of the competition is over, the department will post videotapes of states' presentations online.
Most of them won't win.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters in a conference call that the majority of finalists will go home as finalists, and that the department expects to award no more than $2 billion this round -- quite possibly a lot less.
For the 25 states not chosen this round -- and the finalists who don't win grant money -- there's always round two. Applications for the next round of the competition are due in June.
CORRECTION: The original version of this report misstated the number of states that weren't chosen as finalists in the first round.