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U.S. Dept. of Ed. Plans to Withhold Part of Georgia's Race to Top Grant

UPDATED

The U.S. Department of Education plans to take the unprecedented step of withholding part of Georgia's Race to the Top grant over problems the state is having implementing its teacher-evaluation plans, according to federal officials.

Today's action marks the first time the Education Department has formally moved to take back award money from the Obama administration's signature education-improvement effort. Federal officials plan to withhold $9.9 million by the beginning of the school year that the state had planned to spend on a performance-based compensation system, a promise it made when applying for Race to the Top. The performance-based pay plan has been eliminated.

"This is about Georgia making commitments...and now saying it will not move forward with those commitments," said a senior Education Department official.

The nearly $10 million Georgia is poised to lose won't disappear, but it will be set aside in case state officials have a change of heart. When the grant program ends in a couple of years, any leftover money would revert to the U.S. Treasury.

More than a year ago, federal officials put $33 million of the state's $400 million grant on "high-risk" status after growing concerned about the strategy behind the teacher-evaluation component of the grant. At the time, federal officials wanted more information about the quality of the tools the state is using for its educator-evaluation pilot program, for example. And they wanted to know whether supports being given to districts can be scaled.

In its letter to Gov. Nathan Deal today, included below, federal officials said they were concerned about the state's plans to "delay full, high-stakes implementation of its teacher evaluation system for teachers of non-tested grades and subjects by one year, from school year (SY) 2013-2014 to SY 2014-2015." In addition, it flagged as problematic the elimination of its performance-based compensation system.

Georgia state schools' chief John Barge issued this statement in response:

We listened to our educators in districts across the state, who told us that we needed another year to work on the implementation of performance measures for high-stakes personnel decisions in subjects where we do not have a standardized test. The state of Georgia is not ready to implement a statewide merit pay system. Because four years ago that was written into our Race to the Top application, the U.S. Education Department is initiating withholding procedures for $9.9 million of our $400 million grant. That portion of our grant has not yet been spent in Georgia. We will continue to work with federal officials to develop a plan regarding this issue. But it is critical that we establish an accurate measurement tool for educator performance before we ever consider linking it to merit bonuses for Georgia's teachers. This notification from the Education Department does not hinder the implementation of our Teacher and Leader Keys Effectiveness Systems. We remain ahead of schedule for statewide rollout in 2014-15, and we are currently training and credentialing evaluators in districts across the state.

For anyone wondering if Georgia's withdrawal from PARCC endangers another part of its grant, it probably won't, federal officials say. Participating in common assessments was part of its Race to the Top plan, and federal officials say they are working through the implications with state officials. But, a department official said Georgia's withdrawal is unlikely to cost it any more grant money.

This comes just as the department released Hawaii from high-risk status after the state made significant improvements implementing its $75 million grant. Federal officials said no other state is close to being put on high-risk status for its Race to the Top performance.

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