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Who's Racing to the Top?

U.S. Department of the Interior

Race to the Top. Nope, it’s not a new playground game. This race is big. We’re talking billions of dollars big. You’ve probably heard about it: the competition created by the Obama Administration that doles out cash to states that prove -- through a detailed grant application -- that they have serious plans improve their public schools. Winning states will get a slice of the $4-billion-dollar federally funded pie. 

So far, 12 winners have been selected. Phase 1 winners were Delaware and Tennessee. Phase 2 winners, selected last Tuesday, included the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Rhode Island.

But there’s something oddly similar about the majority of states that have been selected for this funding: geography. A recent New York Times article highlighted the fact that the majority of the winners announced last Tuesday were east of the Mississippi.

So what does this mean? Well, according to the article, educators from many of the states that did not win or that chose not to participate, felt as though they were at a disadvantage from the outset. They said the competition’s rules skewed in favor of densely populated Eastern states, which tend to support ideas that Washington considers innovative, like increasing the number of charter schools and firing principals in failing schools.

The article highlights the following three points: 1) Certain towns in sparsely populated states have only one school, so setting up a parallel charter school might not be possible; 2) attracting new, qualified principals to these rural areas is often difficult; and 3) many of these “rural” states lack the resources and staff to write sophisticated grant applications.

To put that last point in perspective, consider the fact that many of the winning states hired professional writers to complete their grant applications, while South Dakota’s application (which placed last) was written by a full-time school teacher and community volunteer.

I’m all for a healthy competition, but after reading this article I’m a tad puzzled. Is this really fair?

Have you been following the Race to the Top? Let us know what you think.