The Department of Education today released the names of the 16 finalists in the competition for federal Race to the Top (RttT) grants. The finalists include the District of Columbia and 15 states: Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Tennessee. In all, 40 states had applied for the grants. In March, state leaders will come to Washington to deliver presentations on why their states merit a slice of the $4.35 billion in grants. Winners will be announced in April.

The more than $4 billion RttT initiative is the largest discretionary fund an education secretary has ever had the opportunity to work with. As part of the overall $100 billion allocated to the Department of Education as part of the economic “stimulus” plan passed last year, RttT was supposed to be a means of spurring states to implement the types of innovative education reforms that the administration thought would spur academic achievement. Yet, the group of states that made the first cut on the way to a grant was a numerous one – conventional wisdom was that far fewer states would make the first cut.

In addition, the few, true reform measures that conservatives were applauding – namely charter schools – already appear to be on the chopping block. Andy Smarick over at Fordham writes today in a blog post entitled Major Disappointment:

The US Department of Education had the opportunity today to send a clear signal–that the Race to the Top is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, that very good wouldn’t be good enough, that only the biggest and boldest plans would merit consideration. Instead, the administration accepted 15 states and Washington, DC–nearly 1/3 of all applicants–as finalists.

The list includes Kentucky, a state with no charter law and New York, which brashly rejected reform legislation–including a critical cap lift provision–in advance of the deadline. It includes Colorado, which backed off of important reforms related to teachers, and Ohio, whose proposal was weak in a number of areas… I was preparing to heap praise on the administration for doing as they had suggested–only shining a spotlight on the very best of the best. I expected a finalist list of 5 and was quietly hoping for 3. My worst-case scenario was 12. I never would have imagined 16.

Amanda Farris over at the Republican Policy Committee echoes that sentiment, writing:

Secretary Duncan has repeatedly said that in order to qualify for Race to the Top funding states will need to meet “a very, very high bar.” It is therefore surprising that despite the fact that “ensuring successful conditions for high-performing charters and other innovative schools” was a selection criteria, New York and Kentucky were chosen as finalists. As you may recall, earlier this year New York refused to pass an education reform bill that would have expanded their charter school caps, and Kentucky does not even have a charter school law.

“Is this an indication that Secretary Duncan is not really all that serious about expanding quality charter schools and rewarding only the most reform-minded states? This lengthy list of finalists does not inspire much confidence.”

And, over at Edspresso, the feeling is mutual:

“Arne Duncan got an earful from reporters today. They asked about scoring and why some states emerged as finalists when they did little to improve various parts of their reform portfolio…

‘We said from day one,’ said Duncan, ‘that there were many, many factors’ that would go into the scoring. Many different things would be considered, he said. ‘Charters were never going to be the determining factor from the very beginning.’

Why else would only three of the sixteen have charter laws among the top ten in the country? Indeed, Kentucky has none and seven others have laws that are barely passing…And now that it’s clear that a strong charter law or performance pay system doesn’t seem to matter for the competition, state policymakers can breath a sigh of relief that they don’t have to do any heavy lifting to get or stay in the game, just hire a smart team of consultants to create convincing charts and use flowery language…

So, do you fans of increased federal involvement in education still think it can make a difference to improving education for our children?

Which hits at the central question. Fifty years of ever-expanding federal involvement in education without a commensurate increase in academic achievement should have given people pause enough to think that Washington – this time – will be a successful arbiter of innovation. The qualifying states lead one to believe that RttT is full of more rhetoric than reform, despite what the administration would have us believe.

This brings to mind what have been continuously referred to as “voluntary” common stardards. The recent revelation that the administration is considering tying the eligibility for Title I funds to their adoption would make them anything but voluntary.

This is all a good lesson in why those states still willing to feed at the federal trough should at least curb their expectations for results. Even when Washington promises.