The Race to the Top District competition requires applicants to design personalized learning environments using digital tools—but critics say education funding shouldn’t be turned into a competition.

Nearly 900 school districts across the nation intend to apply for a slice of close to $400 million in grants that the U.S. Education Department will distribute in support of local initiatives that help close achievement gaps and prepare students for college and a career.

The department announced Aug. 31 that 893 applicants are slated to participate in the Race to the Top-District competition.

“I believe the best ideas come from leaders at the local level,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said.

The Obama administration already has awarded more than $4 billion to 18 states and the District of Columbia through its Race to the Top competition. The federal funding spurred a wave of reform across states, encouraging the growth of charter schools and changing how teachers are evaluated.

Critics of the program have said it is overly prescriptive and pushes reforms that are not research-based.

The new Race to the Top competition encourages districts to create learning environments that are aligned with college and career-ready standards, accelerate student achievement, and expand access to the most effective teachers.

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The guidelines do not advocate a single approach but require applicants to design personalized learning environments that use data-based and digital tools to meet the needs of individual students.

In order to qualify, at least 40 percent of participating students must come from low-income families. The districts also must put into place teacher, principal, and superintendent evaluation systems by the 2014-15 school year and be able to provide instructors with data on student growth.

The Education Department expects to give 15 to 25 districts four-year grants ranging from $5 million to $40 million, depending on their size. The districts that have applied include some of the nation’s largest—such as New York City, Miami-Dade, and Boston—as well as smaller, rural ones. There are more than 14,000 public school districts nationwide.

Duncan said he hopes the response will build on “this nationwide momentum by funding districts that have innovative plans to transform the learning environment, a clear vision for reform, and [a] track record of success.”

While the competition focuses on locally designed initiatives, it incorporates many of the same core priorities of the state Race to the Top.

Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the research is mixed on many of the competition’s core goals, including creating new teacher evaluation systems.