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How Much Leverage Does Arne Duncan Still Have Over Race to the Top States?

For the past four years, the U.S. Department of Education has been able to withhold—or threaten to withhold—a piece of a winning state's Race to the Top grant if officials weren't following through on their promises. This happened in Hawaii, which eventually righted the ship, and Georgia, which so far has not, at least in the department's estimation. That's cost the Peach State nearly $10 million in money that was supposed to go to help implement teacher pay-for-performance. 

But, now that the Race to the Top is about to reach the finish line, how much leverage does the department still have over the winners

It's a timely question, given that there's been a lot of action in Race to the Top states over the last week, all of which, to some degree, could end up resulting in big changes to states' overall plans. The Education Department has chosen to weigh in on some cases, but not others.

First, New York state was contemplating putting off incorporating student outcomes on high-stakes tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards into teacher evaluations, prompting the Education Department to tell Chalkbeat New York that the Empire State was risking nearly $300 million in Race to the Top funds. (Ultimately, New York settled on a plan that got the seal of approval from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, so it would seem the state is no longer in jeopardy of losing access to some of its grant.)

And then District of Columbia Public Schools, which got the lion's share of the state education agency's $75 million Race to the Top grant, announced it was going to hit the pause button on tying teacher evaluations to student growth on state tests, to help smooth the transition to new, common-core-aligned assessments. That's pretty similar to the move New York was mulling, and it would seem to be a big departure from the state's Race to the Top plan.

But in that case, the Education Department hasn't overtly threatened to put a portion of the District of Columbia grant on hold, as it did with New York. Instead, department officials said they would consider the change once it's been officially submitted as an amendment to the D.C.'s Race to the Top plan. The same goes for the its waiver under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. (Under waivers, states are required to tie teacher evaluations to student progress on state tests.) 

So why did the department say it might withhold a portion of New York's Race to the Top money and not do the same thing in D.C.?

The answer partly stems from the fact that the District of Columbia public schools are only one school system under the jurisdiction of Washington, D.C.'s Office of the State Superintendent of Education, which is the official winner of the Race to the Top grant, explained Ann Whalen, the director of the implementation and support unit at the U.S. Department of Education. So the feds view evaluation change as a district, not state-level decision, as it would have been in New York, she said. It's worth noting that about 43 percent of public school students in the District of Columbia attended charter schools during the 2012-13, many of which use their own evaluation systems. 

The Education Department did more subtly express its displeasure with the District of Columbia's decision, issuing a measured comment last week: 

"We applaud District of Columbia Public Schools for their continued commitment to rigorous evaluation and support for their teachers, we know there are many who looked to DCPS as a pacesetter who will be disappointed with their desire to slow down," said Dorie Nolt, a spokeswoman for Duncan, in an email. (Duncan wasn't similarly tough when it came to the final agreement reached in New York, in part because the system the state came up will still put some value on student growth, according to the feds.) 

Meanwhile, also last week, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Republican, announced he wanted to pull the state out of the common-core standards and aligned tests. It's unclear whether he'll actually get what he wants—John White, the chief state school officer, is not on board.

If the Pelican State does follow through on Jindal's desire, it could be putting part or all of its Race to the Top grant at risk—Louisiana was one of seven recipients of smaller, more targeted "Round 3" Race to the Top grants (aka the "Bridesmaid" round.) In order to get a Round 3 grant, states had to assure the feds that they planned to follow through on plans to implement standards and tests "common to a significant number of states." (Read all about it in this federal register notice.) 

So will the feds withhold part or all of Louisiana's grant? So far, they're not saying, although Whalen said the department will take a look to see if the state's move has implications for its Race to the Top "Bridesmaid' grant. 

It's unclear whether the department's decision to speak up in the case of New York had an impact on the eventual resolution there—or whether a similar public statement would make a difference in either Washington, D.C., or Louisiana. 

But, either way, the department's influence over policy in Race to the Top states has a limited window. The original, $4 billion Race to the Top rounds are coming to an end, in early fall. Still, nearly all of the winners, with the exception of Hawaii, have decided to carry over a portion of their grants into a fifth year (a "no-cost extension" in Education Department-speak.)

The department will still have the ability to put the "carried-over" funding on hold, Whalen said. But the winning states have already spent the majority of their grant money, so the department's leverage would seem to be a lot weaker than it was at the beginning of the program, when states had more cash on the line.

Meanwhile, the Round 3 states, like Louisiana, are only in the third year of their grants right now, giving the department at least one more year to weigh in on changes in those states.

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