Photo courtesy of the New York Times

Earlier this year, Dropout Nation discussed the potential of the latest round of the federal Race to the Top initiative in directly spurring systemic reform within traditional districts. Today, the U.S. Department of Education announced that 61 districts were chosen as finalists for the district-focused round of the competitive grant program. And a few things can be immediately gleaned from the selections so far.

The first: Some of the most-successful reform-oriented districts didn’t get selected. Although New York City and Boston are two of the finalists, neither Houston nor Charlotte-Mecklenberg County made the first cut. Meanwhile districts with questionable bona fides such as the Fulton County district in Georgia (which forced the high-performing Fulton Science Academy charter school to become a private school, and is still working on overhauling its operations), and the Charleston County district in South Carolina make it to the next round. Expect more questions from those reformers who have held Race to the Top in more-skeptical regard than those who support it.

The second? Some rural districts did make the cut. This includes the North Central Educational Service District in Washington State (which provides special education and other services to 29 districts in the Evergreen State), and Cooperative Education Service Agency 10 in Wisconsin (which serves such rural districts as Flambeau as well as Eau Claire). But one can argue that not enough rural districts made the cut. But this isn’t surprising. Rural districts haven’t been the focus of systemic reform efforts, even though they increasingly share many of the same challenges of urban and suburban counterparts. Expect outfits representing rural districts to play a stronger role in shaping future Race to the Top district-level efforts, either by forming coalitions similar to that for the civil rights-oriented reformers such as the Coalition for High School Equity, or by teaming up with reformers such as the Alliance for Excellent Education (which has put some focus on rural districts) to red line rules governing future rounds of Race to the Top and other competitive grants.

Third item of note: The presence of KIPP and Green Dot among the finalists is rather heartening (as is that of Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority, which is sparring with Detroit’s school board — now empowered to behave badly after voters chose earlier this year to kibosh the Wolverine State’s emergency manager law — over whether schools currently in the reform district can stay there). At the same time, it would have been great to see other charter school outfits such as Rocketship Education play a part in this round. Given that charter operators are playing the same roles as districts on a national basis, it may be time for the Obama administration to launch a Race to the Top that focuses exclusively on charters.

Finally, the Obama administration can’t make up its mind as to whether or not it will insist on reform-minded school leaders getting the blessing of affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers as a condition of Race to the Top consideration. On one hand, the administration’s snub of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s proposal, submitted in spite of its battle with the notoriously bellicose AFT affiliate there, would make this seem so. But then there is the fact that New York City has been selected as a finalist in spite of its current sparring with the AFT branch, the nation’s largest teachers’ union local.

This can get interesting. Certainly the Obama administration wants to throw a bone or two to the NEA and AFT, and wants to keep up the centrist Democrat party line that reformers can work with unions to transform teaching and curricula. So  expect U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and fellow centrist Democrats to keep pointing to the new collective bargaining truck between Newark’s school system and the AFT local there  — with its performance pay plan and new objective student data-driven teacher evaluation system — as an example of how reform-minded districts and teachers’ unions can collaborate on reform.

But as seen in L.A., Chicago, and in New York City, there is more incentive for NEA and AFT leaders to continue do the bidding of the Baby Boomers in the rank-and-file who benefit the most from traditional teacher compensation deals, than to craft deals that essentially lead them to losing more influence. More importantly, as seen in Chicago, where AFT local boss Karen Lewis had trouble persuading members to suspend its strike (and still weren’t fully happy with the deal they forced Mayor Rahm Emanuel to accept), it is especially hard for union bosses to control those members they have stirred up for action.

Simply put: It makes no sense for the Obama administration to keep pushing for union-district cooperation at the expense of advancing strong reforms.


A list of the finalists is below.


Cartwright Elementary School District

Peoria Unified School District



Springdale School District



Animo Leadership Charter High School

Galt Joint Union School District

Lindsay Unified School District

New Haven Unified School District



Bridgeport Public Schools

Hartford Public Schools



Mapleton Public Schools

St. Vrain Valley Schools






Broward County School Board

Charlotte County School Board

Manatee County School Board

Miami-Dade County School Board

Seminole County Public Schools



Fulton County Board of Education

Haralson County School System

Morgan County Charter School System

Rockdale County Public Schools



Metropolitan School District of Warren Township



Bourbon County Schools

Green River Regional Educational Cooperative

Kentucky Valley Educational Cooperative



Ascension Parish School System



Baltimore City Public Schools

Baltimore County Board of Education



Boston Public Schools



Education Achievement Authority of Michigan



Jefferson City Public Schools

Maryville R-11 School District

St. Louis Board of Education



Carson City School District



Nashua School District



Neptune Township School District

The Newark Public Schools



New York City Public Schools

Middletown City School District



Guilford County Schools

Iredell-Statesville Schools



Cleveland Municipal School District

Maysville Local School District

Reynoldsburg City School District



McMinnville School District #40



The School District of Philadelphia



Charleston County School District



Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools



Aubrey Independent School District

Dallas Independent School District

Galveston ISD

Harmony Science Academy (Harmony Public Schools)

Idea Public Schools

Peak Preparatory – Uplift Education

Region 5 Education Service Center



Ogden City School District

Salt Lake City School District



North Central Educational Service District 171

Puget Sound Educational Service District

Vancouver Public Schools



Cooperative Education Service Agency 10