Published Online: October 11, 2010
Published in Print: October 13, 2010, as Ambitious Race to Top Plans Put School Districts on Spot

Deadlines Loom on Districts' Race to Top Plans

The deadline pressure states faced in submitting applications in the federal Race to the Top competition is now being felt at the local level, as school districts scurry to craft work plans that show how they will execute ambitious changes in education policy.

Eleven states, plus the District of Columbia, have won a combined $4 billion this year through the program, which was intended to support changes in teacher evaluation, data systems, math and science education, and other areas.

All of the winners secured varying degrees of commitment from local school systems and teachers' unions to help carry out their Race to the Top plans. Now the winners in the second round of the competition, which was part of the 2009 economic-stimulus package, have until Nov. 22 to submit "scope of work" plans from their school districts and other participating local education entities to the U.S. Department of Education.

Completing that work is crucial: States are not allowed to give Race to the Top money to schools and districts until the plans outlining their goals, timelines, and budgets are approved, and if enough local entities fail to submit plans, the winning states’ funding could, at least in theory, be jeopardized, federal officials say.

The Education Department gave the round-two winners 90 days from the time the awards were announced, in August, to submit the local plans. For inspiration, the recent awardees can look to the two first-round winners, Delaware and Tennessee, both of which met their 90-day deadlines earlier this year.

The upcoming deadlines bring a host of challenges.

Some districts have been asked by their states to include descriptions of how they will lay the groundwork for agreements with teachers' unions on teacher evaluation and pay for performance. Some districts are attempting to figure out which individual projects can realistically be funded through their local shares of Race to the Top aid, and which will require money from other sources.

In Florida, which won $700 million through the Race to the Top, state officials encouraged districts to submit scope-of-work plans by Oct. 13, so that the officials can review them and provide feedback. By Nov. 9, all 65 Florida districts taking part in the Race to the Top—out of 67 traditional school systems in the state—must have their plans in, to give the state time to work out problems by the Nov. 22 federal deadline.

The Collier County, Fla., school system, which is expected to receive $4 million through Race to the Top funding, is making progress on its plan, but isn’t likely to make the October goal, said Mary Ann Gemmill, the chief administrative officer for the 43,000-student district.

"We felt we could do better with the deliverable if we pushed it back," she said. "We’re going to pray for perfection on November 9."

New Systems Required

Florida's application called for the creation of a new system to evaluate teachers and principals, based partly on growth in student achievement on tests. By November, the state expects each participating district to submit a comprehensive timeline that explains how it will address all teacher- and principal-evaluation requirements of the state’s application, over the four-year grant period.

By May, each district will be expected to have a revised evaluation system in place for teachers whose performance can be judged under the state’s current testing structure, Florida officials said.

In Collier County, the toughest challenge is creating a blueprint for the evaluation. District officials have been working with union representatives in recent weeks to put it together, Ms. Gemmill said.

"We know where we have to start, and we know where we have to end up," she explained.

Florida officials are pleased with the districts' progress on their plans, said Frances Haithcock, the state's chancellor for K-12 schools. Districts are likely to have an easier time meeting deadlines in some areas where the state already has invested considerable time and resources, such as helping struggling schools, she said, than they will have hammering out agreements about teacher evaluation.

Local Role Crucial

Federal Money, Local Plans

Winners of the federal Race to the Top grants are expected to submit to the U.S. Department of Education "scope of work" plans for the local educational agencies (LEAs) that are participating in their programs. Those plans describe basic goals, timelines, and budgets for LEAs carrying out the state’s plans. The winners face several expectations in working with their LEAs:

&bull At least 50 percent of states’ federal awards have to go to LEAs.

&bull Winners of the second round of Race to the Top have until Nov. 22 to submit their LEAs’ scope-of-work plans to the federal government.

&bull Many states have set earlier scope-of-work deadlines for LEAs, to allow for review of their plans.

&bull States cannot allocate Race to the Top funds to LEAs until their scope-of-work plans are approved.

&bull If LEAs fail to submit plans, states can reallocate their money to other LEAs, with federal approval.

Local implementation will prove critical to states' Race to the Top plans. At least 50 percent of individual states’ awards must go to local education agencies, and states cannot give money to local entities until their scopes of work are approved, federal Education Department officials said in a statement. Federal money has been obligated to the states, but it only can be drawn down as the states fulfill their plans, department officials explained.

If districts fail to meet requirements for scope-of-work plans, states can seek federal permission to reallocate aid to other Race to the Top districts, the department said.

Conceivably, the department could withhold Race to the Top money if significantly fewer local districts completed scopes of work than originally signed on to their states’ applications, but federal officials said they were confident state and local obligations would be met.

Florida officials said they have helped districts with their scope-of-work plans by visiting school systems, answering questions over the phone, and staging webinars to explain the process.

In Ohio, which was awarded $400 million in the competition, state officials have held several regional meetings to provide technical assistance to schools and districts. Ohio has set an Oct. 22 deadline for districts to submit their plans.

Costly Promises

A common concern among district officials is that their Race to the Top funding will not cover the costs of implementing the program locally.

The Lee County, Fla., school system is expected to receive $9 million over four years, said Greg Adkins, the chief human-resources officer for the 82,000-student district. But the price tag for carrying out some of the grant’s requirements—particularly improving data reporting—is likely to carry costs above that limit, he said.

The grant money "sounds large at the state level," Mr. Adkins said, "but when you get to the local level, it’s not much to help us accomplish these goals."

Ohio state officials have heard similar local concerns, said Michael Sawyers, the state's assistant superintendent of education. The state could help them by providing some of the state's share of Race to the Top aid, he said. The state is also encouraging local schools and districts consider pooling their funding in areas such as professional development to make the money go further, he said.

School districts in another winning state, Maryland, have asked districts to turn in scope-of-work plans by Nov. 3, to allow for sufficient state review and changes over the weeks leading up to Nov. 22, said James V. Foran, the assistant superintendent for the state’s division of academic reform and innovation.

Maryland districts have some leeway in working out potentially vexing teacher-evaluation issues, Mr. Foran said, while a council created by Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, studies that topic.

But the Race to the Top plans are due as Maryland districts face an unrelated deadline to submit comprehensive master plans to the state, Mr. Foran said. And some districts must have their Race to the Top scopes of work approved by local school boards.

"The biggest challenge they face, by far," he said, "is time."

Vol. 30, Issue 07, Pages 1,23

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