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Calif. Forgoes Data Grant, Jeopardizes Other Stimulus Funds

When California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed spending $2.1 million in federal funds to help build a longitudinal data system for teacher information, he might have done more than just jeopardize that particular grant.

Indeed, the state has to return the entire $6 million State Longitudinal Data Systems grant. But it may have bigger problems.

When California took nearly $6 billion in State Fiscal Stabilization Fund dollars (remember that money, from the 2009 economic-stimulus package?) it agreed, as did all states, to do certain things. One of those was to have a data system that allowed individual teacher information to be linked to individual students. That, and the 11 other components of a good data system spelled out in the America COMPETES Act, are supposed to be in place in each state by Sept. 30 of this year.

By giving up federal funding to implement this data system, California seems to be willfully flouting the rules governing the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund.

The U.S. Department of Education has taken notice, and is in "conversations" with state officials about how to address this problem. If California doesn't find a way to make progress on its data system, then the department will likely take enforcement action against the state—which could mean anything from stepped-up monitoring to a demand that the state return any or all of its $6 billion in SFSF dollars. And that would likely be a huge problem for the state, which has reported spending all but $8 million of it.

Gov. Brown's office hasn't responded to a request for comment.

In addition, this probably doesn't put California in a very good position to win a smaller, third-round Race to the Top grant. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is setting aside $200 million in new Race to the Top money this year for the runners-up from last year's competition to implement a small piece of their original proposal. California is one of those runners-up. Although we're still waiting for details on this latest Race to the Top iteration, states that backtrack on a part of their plan probably won't be looked upon favorably. Keep in mind, being able to link individual teachers to individual students isn't just any policy, but a critical one for Duncan. He has made linking student test data with teacher evaluations a key piece of his education agenda.

What's more, given that Duncan has said he will set a high bar for states to get a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Act, and given that Duncan is expecting states to embrace his education reform ideas, the state may also not be putting itself in the best position to get regulatory relief under NCLB, either.

The state in its annual report filed earlier this year, which was a progress report on the spending of SFSF dollars, placed a check mark in the box for having completed a teacher data system that allows individual teacher information to be linked to individual students. Before returning the federal funds, the state urged federal officials to let them use the money for other parts of its data system, but that request was unsuccessful.

This may be one of the Education Department's first major tests of holding states accountable for stimulus spending. So stay tuned.

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