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School districts in Arizona, California and Georgia are among 61 finalists in the $400 million federal Race to the Top-District competition, which will fund district-wide efforts to close the achievement gap and raise teacher effectiveness.

The U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday released a list of finalists that represent more than 200 school districts, including some of the nation’s largest.

Race to the Top results
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

“These finalists are setting the curve for the rest of the country,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “No matter who wins, children across the country will benefit from the clear vision and track records of success demonstrated by these finalists.”

A total of 372 applicants, including several charter-school networks, competed in the district competition.

The Department of Education will choose 15-20 winners from among the finalists to receive between $5 million and $40 million each (depending on district size) by December 31st.

Some of the country’s weakest educational performers, like Mississippi and West Virginia, were noticeably absent from the list of finalists, despite applications from multiple districts. Both states also failed to receive money in 2010 and 2011 through the initial Race to the Top competition as well as the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, which provided funding for early education programs.

The district-level competition follows the state-level Race to the Top competition, which in 2009-10 incentivized 46 states to make contentious changes to teacher evaluations and charter-school laws. Twenty-one states and the District of Columbia have received funding through Race to the Top grant competitions since 2010.

In Mississippi, where students have posted some of the country’s lowest test scores for years, a lack of state funding has prompted nonprofit organizations and various districts to create their own solutions and seek funding independently.

Thirteen Mississippi school districts applied in the latest round of the Race to the Top competition, including several in the impoverished Delta region as well as the beleaguered Jackson Public Schools. Earlier this month, Jackson narrowly avoided losing its accreditation over special-education program indiscretions, and it recently hired a retired Tennessee educator to oversee its compliance efforts.

Money for schools has long been sparse in Mississippi. A program intended to support its districts has been underfunded by about $980 million since 2007, according to the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, and the state already spends less money per pupil than nearly every other state.

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant has said he will not recommend funding pre-kindergarten next year, but he has proposed $3 million for a promising private pre-k initiative. In his 2013 budget proposal, Bryant also suggested spending $15 million for teacher training and literacy coaches to address what he has called the state’s “literacy crisis.”

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