Will being a first-round finalist hurt Ohio's chances in the Race to the Top?

When federal education Secretary Arne Duncan unveiled the finalists for his $4.35 billion Race to the Top sweepstakes last week, surprise was a common reaction – surprise both at how many (16 out of 41 applicants) and who made the cut.

Reform-minded states like Tennessee, Florida, and Louisiana made it. Their applications proposed major education innovations, supported by national partners and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, and have been considered top contenders since applications were submitted in January. But Kentucky, which has no charter school law, also was named a finalist. So was New York, where student test results are prohibited from informing teacher tenure decisions and where charter school growth is capped.

Ohio made the finalist list, too. The Buckeye State’s surely is one of the top 16 applications submitted. Still, most fair-minded observers don’t think Ohio should win in the first round despite making the preliminary cut, unless Secretary Duncan goes back on his word and awards the dollars to most of the finalists or doles out grants based on political pressure.

Even if Duncan raises the bar for winning Race to the Top dollars, making the easy decision and inviting nearly two-fifths of the applicants to continue in the competition could have a negative impact on the round-two hopes of the less-stellar finalists like Ohio.

While Ohio is preparing to make the pitch for its application in Washington, D.C., next Tuesday, the states that didn’t make the “sweet 16” are re-crafting their applications and considering legislation to make their second proposals more appealing. If Ohio loses the race in April, we will have lost a valuable month or more that could have been spent improving our proposal and our legislative landscape. Given the state’s legislative schedule and the slow pace of our legislature this session, there will be little to no opportunity to make changes in state law to aid our second-round proposal.

Ohio could also use an extra month to build broader support for its application. The current application was crafted mainly behind closed doors with no real input from outsiders (other than the teachers unions). In fact, Republican lawmakers were not allowed to see the application prior to its public release and now are voicing their concerns with it. The reforms it should take to win the Race to the Top will be tough to enact here and will require support that extends across ideologies and from the Statehouse to the classrooms.

Instead, Ohio will spend the next month hoping for a win and sitting on its hands. If that win doesn’t materialize, we’ll head into round two with little time or space to do much differently beyond reworking our text.

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