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'Race To The Top' Successfully Incentivizes Reform, Secretary Of Education Claims

Yesterday, the U.S. Department of Education announced 19 finalists in the second round of the "Race to the Top" program, which will award some $3.4 billion to winners.

In an interview with NPR's Michele Norris, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that many of the 35 applicants -- 34 states, plus the District of Columbia -- had improved on their first-round proposals, and he expects to allocate money to more than half the finalists.

Duncan said that, while $3.4 billion may seem like a lot of money, it represents less than one percent of what the U.S. spends on K-12 education annually. "Race to the Top" is most effective as a motivational tool, he argued.

"The process itself has helped move the ball forward," Duncan said. "And that's exactly what we want."

It gives states an opportunity to demonstrate their courage, their commitment to reform, and ultimately, they're capacity to deliver great results.

The former superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, Duncan said he resented it when the federal government told his colleagues and him how to do their jobs. According to Duncan, "Race to the Top," and indeed his philosophy at the Department of Education, reflects that.

"The leadership is never going to come from us," he said. "It's aways going to come at the local level."

Duncan rejected criticism of the program -- that its rules are byzantine, that its judging process is analogous to American Idol or America's Got Talent, and that it rewards good grant writing, above all else.

After the first round, Gov. Bill Ritter (D-CO) said the competition was "like the Olympic Games, and we were an American skater with a soviet judge from the 1980s."

"I think he was, you know, maybe a little frustrated, a little upset that they didn't win the first round, and that's understandable," Duncan said. "But it was a very, very fair and objective process, and they put their best foot forward in the second round, and they've done a great job."

Colorado is among the finalists in the second round.

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