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States face delays in implementing Race to the Top

"I don't think the states will fully achieve what they promised to do but they will make progress toward those goals," said an expert.

Several states that won a slice of the U.S. Department of Education’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top competition have had to delay plans to implement ambitious reforms and two could possibly lose money if they don’t get back on track.

Officials released state reports Tuesday detailing the progress of all 12 winners in the first year of implementation and found only three are on schedule with their plans. Another six states are headed in the right direction but facing delays and three—New York, Florida and Hawaii—are reported to have significant issues.

“New York made significant progress through Race to the Top over the last year but has recently hit a roadblock that not only impedes Race to the Top but could threaten other key reform initiatives,” U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday in a statement. “Backtracking on reform commitments could cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars for improving New York schools.”

It was the second time in weeks the department warned a state could lose money for not fulfilling its Race to the Top proposal. In December, officials admonished Hawaii for “unsatisfactory” performance, placing that state under “high risk” status. Hawaii has requested amendments for all projects that are part of their Race to the Top plan. The state also delayed implementation of a new evaluation system.

New York and Florida are not yet considered “high risk,” but Education Department officials are concerned. In New York, the state has held back millions in federal grants to 10 districts that haven’t reached an agreement with unions on teacher and principal evaluations, including in New York City, the largest U.S. school district. Negotiations between New York City education officials and the United Federation of Teachers fell apart in late December.

Federal grants in jeopardy include not just Race to the Top funds, but also School Improvement Grants, which are aimed at lifting the lowest performing schools. Other education reform projects within New York’s Race to the Top plans are dependent upon having the teacher evaluation system in place. In the report released Tuesday, Education Department officials note the large number and variety of school districts within the state have made executing Race to the Top plans especially difficult.

In Florida, officials have struggled to issue contracts in a timely manner. Ninety-eight percent of Florida’s state-level Race to the Top funds has been budgeted for contracts ranging from data system implementation to intervention in failing schools. The report cites leadership changes, legal challenges and lack of staff among problems there.

Pam Stewart, chancellor for K-12 education in Florida, said the state is back on track, meeting all contract deadlines that were due by Dec. 31. She said Florida’s system of issuing competitive bids may have slowed some projects, but officials feel it will ultimately strengthen the state’s Race to the Top goals.

She also highlighted a law passed last year that eliminates tenure for new teachers, links instructor evaluations to student test scores, and sets a new compensation system to reward those whose students achieve the highest gains.

“I think Florida feels very good about the progress we have made,” Stewart said.

Duncan praised the states for making “tremendous strides” in the first year. Maryland, Massachusetts and Ohio are all on schedule, and the District of Columbia, Delaware, Georgia, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and Tennessee are all considered to be moving in the right direction with plans.

“These twelve states created aggressive plans that set a high bar for reform, setting out to accomplish extraordinarily tough work that comes with its share of challenges,” Duncan said. “We are supporting states to help them achieve their goals. At the same time, we will hold them accountable for those commitments.”

Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, said states overpromised on what they could do and how fast.

“I don’t think the states will fully achieve what they promised to do but they will make progress toward those goals,” he said, noting “these are very difficult problems to solve.”

Two upcoming surveys from the center show Race to the Top states are in better shape in implementing common core standards, setting uniform benchmarks approved in most states compared to those that didn’t win.

The reports released Tuesday come four months after Chiefs for Change, a coalition of education leaders, wrote a letter encouraging Duncan to hold all winners accountable for improving achievement and implementing proposals.

“I think what you’re seeing now is implementation challenges,” said Eric Smith, Florida’s former education commissioner. “As with any reform effort .. as you get into the weeds on some very challenging issues there are adjustments that need to be made.”

The Race to the Top competition sought to award states for agreeing to undertake ambitious education reforms. Dozens changed laws, introduced new teacher evaluation systems and lifted caps on charter schools in order to compete for the funds. The National Council on Teacher Quality issued a report in October that noted even several states that didn’t win funds have moved forward with reforms. It also noted that some Race to the Top states have not succeeded with legislative or regulatory changes to improve teacher effectiveness.

“In terms of teacher evaluations, I think most of the Race to the Top states really have their noses to the ground and are really moving ahead,” Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the Washington-based research and policy groups said. “There are certainly challenges. It’s a very heavy list they are trying to undertake.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest education union, said the delays aren’t surprising.

“States that applied for Race to the Top did so because they were cash strapped and looking for money anywhere, from any source to help kids,” she said. “And then what they tried to do is try to figure out how to take that money and apply it for the purposes intended and realize it’s a lot more complicated.”

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