"Sweet 16" Too Many Finalists, Race to the Top Winners Get "One Shining Moment"?

It’s March — which means, if you like basketball as much as I do, there’s a really big tournament coming up. And after a team wins two games in that tourney, then they become part of the cleverly named “Sweet Sixteen.” But what about states that filled out applications for competitive federal K-12 grant money? How does it work out for them?

Well U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is a big basketball fan, too, and was once a good college basketball player. No doubt about that. So in one sense I understand why this morning Duncan announced 16 states are finalists for the first round of Race to the Top money. Colorado, which asked for $377 million to implement reforms, is among them.

Since no one knows exactly how many grant awards will be distributed, it’s hard to say how this all will play out and whether states will even get the amount they asked for. But Colorado hasn’t helped itself with a consensus approach, which among other things has created a council to study how to tie teacher tenure and evaluations to student academic growth, rather than actually try to fix the law itself.

And today Ed News Colorado tells us:

Sen. Michael Johnston, D-Denver, had been working on comprehensive evaluation and tenure reform legislation before Ritter’s plan was announced. He says he still plans to introduce a bill but said Wednesday it might not happen for several weeks.

Not exactly the kind of change we can believe in. But as Michael Petrilli explains at the Flypaper blog, with 16 states in the field, the competition isn’t exactly stiff (what he describes as “a sad day for reformville”):

…Arne Duncan has spent a year saying that he was going to keep the bar high. But really? New York, which failed to pass a slew of reforms last month? Kentucky, without a charter school law? Ohio?

Who knows? Maybe Duncan the big basketball fan wanted to include Kentucky and New York because the UK Wildcats and Syracuse Orangemen are both ranked in the nation’s top three teams right now. (Of course, that doesn’t explain why Kansas didn’t make the Race to the Top cut.)

But if we’re going to stick with the hoops analogies, maybe Race to the Top would be taken more seriously if the Department of Education had decided to go only with an Elite Eight group of finalists. And Duncan and crew still might be able to redeem themselves by limiting the winners to a Final Four, whether or not Colorado deserves to be among them.

The only weird part about it might be having to watch the “One Shining Moment” musical montage at the end of the award presentations, with clips of state education department employees filling out paperwork, state lawmakers voting on bills, and state officials personally lobbying Secretary Duncan for their share of the winnings. But ’tis the season: