The administration has just announced its round one Race to the Top winners, and only two states – drum roll please – Tennessee and Delaware, made the cut. The stated purpose of $4.35 billion RttT program is to increase teacher quality, improve failing schools, enhance the quality of state assessments, and build data systems to measure student growth.

The identification of just two first-round winners falls short of the number most analysts predicted. While it is unclear as of yet exactly why those two states made the cut, the New York Times surmises:

Tennessee has long had a student-data tracking system that allows it to trace student achievement to individual teachers, and in its proposal the state promised to adopt an advanced statewide teacher evaluation system by the 2011-12 school year. Currently, teacher evaluation systems there, as in most states, are designed by school districts.

Delaware already has a statewide annual teacher evaluation system, and has recently adopted regulations requiring that those evaluations be based on growth in student achievement, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality, which rated the finalists’ proposals.

Education Week made an interesting observation:

Tennessee and Delaware just happen to be the home states of two powerful, Republican lawmakers the Obama administration is trying to court in its bipartisan push to renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act: Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del. Both chair the subcommittees in their respective chambers dealing with K-12 policy, and both are considered leading moderate voices on education who have worked well with Democrats in the past. In fact, in an interview with the Washington Post’s David Broder, Secretary Duncan singled out Alexander and Castle as the two Republicans who had offered ideas that were incorporated into the administration’s ESEA blueprint.

What distinguished the winners from other states? Florida, for example, had a strong application and was widely expected to top the list of RttT candidates. The WSJ reports on at least one factor:

The administration appeared to put a very high value on applications that had won wide support from unions and school boards within their states. Florida’s bid, for instance, received the support of just 8% of its unions.

In that respect, for all its talk of reform, RttT still seems tied to significant elements of the status quo, as Dr. Jay Greene explains:

If people know that union opposition scuttles a state’s chances, then no state will apply in the future unless they have union support. This means that the unions will dictate what reforms will be pursued, which means that there will be virtually no reform. This enhancement of union power also undermines the rhetorical effects that RTTT had by narrowing state and local policy debate to those measures acceptable to the unions.