Race to Top Winners Get Guidance on Plan Alterations

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The Obama administration has released guidanceRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader meant to spell out what kinds of amendments it will accept to plans submitted by states that won a share of $4 billion in grants under the federal Race to the Top competition—and the types of changes that would put the awardees’ funding at risk.

In documents sent to governors and other state officials late last week, U.S. Department of Education officials explained that amendments to plans must be “consistent with the underlying principles,” of the high-profile competition, in which 11 states and the District of Columbia won grants of up to $700 million.

Those core principles include sticking to academic targets and maintaining a level of support from teachers’ unions and state boards of education sufficient to ensure that their plans can be carried out.

To date, department officials have been guarded in describing how far winning states could go in seeking to make changes to promises in their Race to the Top plans. The new guidance still seems to leave room for interpretation and negotiation between federal officials and states.

The guidance specifically says that states must seek approval to make changes to their academic goals and timelines, to make “major” alterations to their budgets, or to add or delete schools or districts from their plans.

The winners in the two rounds of the competition had a three-month window after their awards were announced—the second announcement came in August—to make changes to the number of participating districts. Those proposed changes, described in required state “scope of work” documents, are still being reviewed by federal officials, and the new guidance does not apply to those earlier changes; it instead applies to additional alterations going forward, the department said.

The department “recognizes that there may come a time when a grantee may need to revise its plan due to unforeseen circumstances in order to keep on its path to reform,” writes Joseph C. Conaty, the interim director of the Race to the Top program, in a letter to state officials. But he adds that if awardees are “implementing unapproved changes” or not meeting other goals and requirements, federal officials “will take appropriate enforcement actions.”

Department spokeswoman Sandra Abrevaya said in a statement that the administration’s goal is to be “both supportive and transparent” in working with states. Some states have asked the department for flexibility on time lines, budgets, and decisions about whether the state or outside contractors conduct various aspects of the work, she noted, and the department wanted to give them direction.

“The bar is set as high as it was when the competition began,” Ms. Abrevaya said. “This guidance is part of a major undertaking at the department to ensure that states are able to live up to their commitments for education reform.”

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While much of the language in the guidance seems fairly “perfunctory,” federal officials also seem intent on warning states not to break the promises they made in their plans, said Timothy Daly, the president of The New Teacher Project, a New York-based nonprofit that seeks to improve the quality of instruction for needy students.

He pointed to language in the guidance saying that states should not make changes that “decrease or eliminate” reform as telling.

“They’re basically saying if the state attempts to not follow through, or makes changes that water down what they’re doing, that will not be viewed as a small deviation,” Mr. Daly said.

Federal officials were wise to release the guidance now, to try to set a uniform standard for judging states’ requests, he added, so that they weren’t later accused of judging them arbitrarily, or based on political considerations. Mr. Daly’s organization recently completed an analysis that was critical of the scoring process used for judging states’ Race to the Top applications.

The Race to the Top program, created in 2009 as part of the federal economic-stimulus package, invited states to compete for hundreds of millions of dollars in cash awards, which they could win by promising to make major innovations in areas such as instruction, charter school expansion, mathematics and science education, and turning around struggling schools.

Since it announced the competition in 2009, the administration estimates that 34 states have changed education laws or policies in areas such as teacher evaluation, improved data systems, and the adoption of common standards.

In March, Delaware and Tennessee were named as winners in the first round, securing about $100 million and $500 million, respectively. Ten more awardees were named in August: the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, and Rhode Island. Their awards ranged from $75 million to $700 million.

In “scope of work” documents submitted by winning round-two states in November, some local participants opted out of states’ plans, citing costs or bureaucratic hurdles, ranging from a handful of districts in Florida to several dozen schools in Ohio.

Under the new guidance, winners seeking to amend plans must submit requests for the department’s review. Amendments will be approved only if they are deemed necessary and consistent with Race to the Top principles, Mr. Conaty wrote in his letter to state officials. Any approved changes to state plans—and the state’s rationale for seeking a change—will be posted on the department’s website. States that try to make unapproved changes, the department said, could face actions ranging from additional oversight to loss of award funds.

Vol. 30, Issue 15, Pages 19, 23

Published in Print: January 12, 2011, as Race to Top Winners Get Guidance on Plan Alterations
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