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Race to Top Winners Can Apply for Extra Year to Finish Work

The U.S. Department of Education will consider, on a case-by-case basis, granting the original 12 Race to the Top winners an extra year to finish their work.

Next school year was set to be the fourth and last year for the Race to the Top program, the $4 billion education-redesign competition for states funded under the economic-stimulus package passed by Congress in 2009. But delays have plagued many winning states as they seek to make good on their promises, and states have been slow to spend their money. More than three years into the grant, the 11 winning states and the District of Columbia have drawn down less than half of their winnings, Education Department records show.

The Education Department will consider these "no-cost extensions"—which mean states won't get any additional money to finish their plans, just extra time—between now and January. Federal officials will consider a one-year extension on a project-by-project basis and won't give states blanket approval to take more time on all parts of their plans. States would have until July 1, 2015 to spend their money (versus the summer of 2014).

What's more, U.S. Department of Education officials say they will not grant significant deadline extensions—such as delaying implementation of a state's new teacher-evaluation system—without a strong rationale. These extensions are more geared to do things such as recruit another cohort of teachers through an alternative-certification program, or fine tune their work.

These no-cost extensions are customary with federal grants, and the U.S. Department of Education has said (in a FAQ document for example) that it would consider them at a later date. Well, that later date has arrived.

A March 14 letter to state chiefs explained: "As you approach Year 4 of the grant, we want to ensure you have the information and resources required to thoughtfully continue implementation and plan for sustainability. And in light of current questions about the sources and stability of future federal funding, we want to remove the uncertainty in these key areas."

In giving states more time, federal officials are trying to walk a fine line between making sure states deliver on their promises, but also wanting to see them succeed—while making sure they don't blow through their cash just to meet a deadline.

"We are still trying to hold them accountable to their commitments," said Ann Whalen, who oversees the Race to the Top program for the Education Department. "But we don't want them sitting on the money either."

Recent reports by the Education Department show that states are struggling, in particular, with upgrading and building new data systems and implementing teacher-evaluation systems.

But the most pronounced reason states need more time, Whalen said, is that "comprehensive reform is difficult work. As states are translating their vision into action they are getting smarter. This gives them more time."

The delays in this first iteration of Race to the Top could foreshadow what's to come with other Race to the Top grants, including ones that rewarded states for their early-learning plans and a more recent contest targeted at the district level.

For states, having an extra year comes at a cost. It would often mean an additional year of state salaries to support the implementation of Race to the Top, at a time when many state education agencies are struggling with their own budget woes. And states will have to figure out how to work with participating districts during a one-year extension, too, since Race to the Top winnings were split between states and districts.

Even with a fifth possible year for states to finish their work, one firm deadline remains: Any unspent money reverts to the treasury on Oct. 1, 2015.

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