(This post was co-authored by Evelyn B. Stacey, education policy analyst at the Pacific Research Institute, a free-market think tank in Sacramento, California)

Last week’s Race to the Top (RTTT) announcement of the 16 finalist states has generated an outpouring of media coverage. At issue isn’t just who made the cut but who didn’t. Among the 40 states that applied for a slice of more than $4 billion in federal-funding pie, California didn’t make the cut. Its share would have been up to $700 million.

The Los Angeles Times speculated that union influence compromised California’s application: from our perspective, what the schools needed were rules allowing district administrators, not union contracts, to determine which teachers should work at specific campuses, so that urban schools with mostly poor, minority students would be staffed by excellent educators.” The San Francisco Chronicle agreed:

One thing that definitely went wrong [with California’s application] was the attitude of the state teachers’ unions. Union leaders fought the reform legislation at every turn and managed to water down the package that eventually passed in January. Marty Hittelman, president of the California Federation of Teachers, even said he wasn’t sorry that California lost the first round.

Others were surprised New York made the first cut. The Washington Post suggested the finalists’ list needs some “whittling.” States like Louisiana, Tennessee and Florida mandate that student achievement factor heavily into teacher evaluations-so their inclusion made sense But “it’s puzzling to see how New York, with its failure to enact new charter school laws and its ban on the use of student test scores in teacher tenure decisions, made the grade,” noted the Post. “Ditto Kentucky, where there is no charter law. Some observers who thought Ohio had a weak application wondered if its importance on the political map might be a factor.”

The Wall Street Journal called it a case of “no state left behind,” and quoted Joe Williams of Democrats for Education, who called New York’s inclusion “baffling.” AEI’s Andrew Smarick likened the RTTT competition thus far to a “cake walk” because a many state finalists “have glaring deficiencies that would make them unable to get over a medium bar, much less the ‘very, very high bar’ that Secretary Duncan said he would set.”

Their results may go to show that government-no matter how lavishly it spends-can only do so much when it comes to meaningful education reform. True change comes from empowering parents to become involved in their own child’s education.

But stay tuned on April 1st when the final winners will be announced. The deadline for round two of the RTTT competition is June 1.  It’s anyone’s guess where the race goes from here.