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Today’s announcement of round two Race to the Top finalists mostly lacked drama. As is true of student performance, the best predictor of each state’s performance in round two was its performance in round one. In fact, all of the first-round finalists who didn’t win in that round found themselves in a familiar position today: they are once again finalists.

Surprise, surprise.

On June 2nd, a day after round-two applications were due, I published a list of 15 contenders that I thought would make the final round. The only real guesswork was how to judge the six states that applied for the first time in round two: Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada and Washington. I picked Maryland and Washington to advance. Only Maryland did. All 14 of my other “guesses” made today’s list of finalists.

In his press conference today, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said with a hint of pride that the Race to the Top competition has set off “an avalanche of pent-up educational reform activity.” He also noted that in his travels to 37 states and hundreds of schools, he has “yet to meet one person who is satisfied with the status quo.”

Race to the Top 2010 round two
Justin Snider

There was one surprise finalist: Arizona, which finished 40th out of 41 in round one. It has made the top 19 this time – an impressive leap – but can it stun everyone even more by winning in round two? I think not, simply because the competition is so strong and leapfrogging two dozen states would be nothing short of miraculous.

Second-round scores will remain confidential for now, but Duncan didn’t leave us entirely in the dark. He disclosed that the average score for second-round finalists is up 25 points from the first round, and that all finalists scored at least 400 out of 500 possible points. (All first-round finalists also scored at least 400.)

Working with this information, I’ve calculated that the average score of second-round finalists is between 443 and 447. (Duncan didn’t clarify whether the 25-point increase in the average second-round score was based on round-one finalists’ initial or final scores. But the difference is minor: round-one finalists averaged 418.4 before their presentations and 422.0 after their presentations.)

So what we’re looking at now is an average second-round score that is on par with one of the first-round winners – Tennessee, which secured $500 million in March with a final score of 444.2.

What we know for sure is that a maximum of $3.4 billion is available. And Duncan has repeatedly said only 10-12 contenders will emerge victorious in round two.

Nine of the second-round finalists fall into category 1 or 2, which are states eligible for $350-700 million (category 1) or $200-400 million (category 2) each. Only two other states even fall into these categories: Texas (which didn’t apply in either round) and Michigan (which wasn’t a finalist in either round). The categories were created based on each state’s “share of the national population of children ages 5 through 17.”

The good news for smaller states is that only one of the category 1 behemoths is likely to win: Florida. (California, which finished 27th with a score of 336.8 in the first round, is unlikely to make its way into the winners’ circle. Ditto for New York, which finished 15th with a score of 408.6 in the first round.) This means more money will be available for states in categories 2-5.

The bad news for smaller states is that five of the six category 2 finalists are likely to win: Georgia, Illinois, North Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. This means significantly less money will be available for states in categories 3-5.

So here’s my final projection of round-two winners (in alphabetical order), who will be announced with much fanfare in September:

North Carolina
Rhode Island
South Carolina

This list includes 13 states, a baker’s dozen – and one more than the upper limit of what Duncan has said he’s likely to fund. (But before his projection of 10-12 winners, he spoke of having 10-15 winners, so I’m hedging my bets and going with 13 this time.)

It’s worth remembering that Duncan has final say over how much money each winning state receives. Just because Florida requested the maximum for category 1 states – $700 million – doesn’t mean it will receive every penny it requested.

So look for 13 winners this fall, but not all funded at their full requests. No matter who ultimately wins, Duncan insists his reforms are succeeding, even as questions have arisen in Congress about President Obama’s education agenda.

“As we look at the last 18 months, it is absolutely stunning to see how much change has happened at the state and local levels, unleashed in part by these incentive programs,” Duncan said.

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