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Race to the Top: When States Ask for Too Much Money

With a Race to the Top announcement of the finalists slated for tomorrow, it seems important to start looking ahead to what happens to the states that actually win.

One thing many have been curious about is what happens if a state builds an ambitious plan, and assembles a working budget, but wins far less money than it asked for. Florida, for example, asked for $1.1 billion, but the department's top-line (though nonbinding) estimate for a state of Florida's size is $700 million. Colorado asked for $377 million, and may get only $175 million. Illinois asked for $510 million, and may get only $400 million. Do you see a pattern here?

So, if a state wins less money than it banked on when it built its plan, can it scale back its plan?

Not really. At least not very easily.

I had a chance to ask Joanne Weiss, the Education Department's Race to the Top director, this question. She essentially said that once a grant is awarded, a state's plan cannot be changed. After all, the peer reviewers scored the application based on a state's entire plan, and if the plan had been less ambitious, it might not have won.

In Weiss' words: "We can't change the scope under which they won the grant or they might not have won."

She did say, however, that the department will have detailed budget conversations with each winning state—and that's where such discussions about scope and scale would take place.

So, the phrase "Go big or go home" could come back and haunt some states, especially when many are so cash-strapped they're talking about cuts to basic K-12 education services.

Of course, as with any grant, the department has the authority to discontinue funding if a state doesn't make good on its commitments.

The big question is: Can these ambitious states, if they win, really deliver on their promises? And how will we know?

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