Colorado’s status as the only state west of the Mississippi to make the finals in the Race to the Top is “purely coincidence,” U. S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Thursday.
“We just took them one to 16,” Duncan said, answering a question from an Arizona reporter in a press conference call after announcing the 16 finalists for $4.35 billion in federal grant money.
Journalists peppered him with questions about why some states made the cut and why some didn’t but Duncan said the answer is simple:
He picked the 15 states and the District of Columbia because each earned more than 400 points – out of a possible 500 – based on their lengthy grant applications.
Duncan acknowledged that he could have picked finalists out of order but said he saw no reason to do so.
“These were the 16 states that had the most points, above 400,” he said, “… there was a natural break at 400 so there was no reason for me to contemplate or consider going out of rank order.”
Reaction to the finalists was varied but some national pundits were surprised by the sheer number.
Andy Smarick, a former U.S. Department of Education official, called it a “major disappointment.”
“(Duncan) had the opportunity today to send a clear signal … that only the biggest and boldest plans would merit consideration,” Smarick wrote in a blog pot. Instead, “the list includes Kentucky, a state with no charter law… Colorado, which backed off of important reforms related to teachers …
“By sending forward a number of states with such glaring deficiencies, the Department did not set a ‘very, very high bar’ ” as promised, he wrote.
Duncan reiterated Thursday that he expects “very few” finalists will be named winners, likely “in the single digits.”
“Each of them has a shot at winning but most of them will go home as finalists, not winners,” he said. “At most, we expect to reward no more than $2 billion in the first round and it could be considerably less.”
That’s less than half of the total money available for Race to the Top. Winners in the first round will be announced April 1. The rest of the money will be distributed in a second round, which has a June 1 application deadline.
So why name so many finalists if the number of first-round winners will be so small?
“We thought about that a lot,” Duncan said. “We could have gone with a smaller number. I thought it was really important to be inclusive … it makes it tougher on our end but it’s not about us.
“It’s really about looking people in the eye and letting them speak,” he added. “If I were on the other end, I would want the opportunity to do that.”
Teams representing the 16 finalists are now scheduled to travel to Washington D.C. the week of March 15 for interviews with Duncan and with the reviewers who scored their applications.
“To me, it’s very important that we not just make these decisions based on pieces of paper,” Duncan said. “This is about looking people in the eye … We want to find out people’s capacity to implement their plans.”
He’s looking for “courage, collaboration and commitment,” he said, along with “complete candor.”
The interviews will not be public though Duncan said they will be videotaped and the videotapes released after the winners are announced.
Colorado was seen as unlikely to make what was expected to be a very short list of finalists, largely because of concerns that state officials shied away from tough decisions about improving teacher quality.
Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of the D.C. think tank Education Sector, said Colorado was considered a “bubble state at best” while Tom Carroll, president of the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability, deemed Colorado “competitive” but not “highly competitive.”
Still, the real questions on the lists of finalists swirled around states such as New York, which was seen as having little chance because, among other reasons, state lawmakers failed to lift a charter school cap.
But Duncan, questioned on Thursday, said no single element was make-or-break for any state.
“Every state had relative strengths, every state had relative weaknesses but we were looking at many, many different factors,” he said. “Charters were never going to be the determining factor. We said that from day one.”
Colorado’s Lt. Gov. Barbara O’Brien, who has led the state’s Race to the Top effort, said the newly named members of the Council on Educator Effectiveness will begin meeting next week.
“We are committed to thoroughly modernizing and streamlining our teacher and principal effectiveness and evaluation system,” she said. “That council will begin doing its work and we expect that will be a strong point for us when we make our proposal in Washington.”
Duncan said the finalists won’t be told their ranking or hear reviewers’ comments until after winners are announced.
“All of these states could win,” he said, “but … a relatively small number will win.”
Nancy Mitchell can be reached at email@example.com or 303-478-4573.