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Thursday, May 5, 2011 - 3:55am

Race to the Top Begins Slowly

Georgia has begun spending the $400 million it won eight months ago in the federal Race to the Top education grant competition. But progress has been slow. Although the state is picking up its pace, the delay has left some lingering confusion.

State School Superintendent John Barge says that his office is buzzing with plans to spend Georgia’s Race to the Top winnings.

“Oh my gosh, we have so many different things going on right now with Race to the Top,” he says.

Barge can rattle off a list of projects in the hopper: Newly-approved contracts to recruit teachers for hard-to-staff districts. Big advances on a database that will eventually track students from pre-kindergarten through college. A nearly $20 million competition for districts and charter schools who improve science and math education.

But eight months after Georgia became one of 12 states to win the coveted education reform grant, the state department of education has only spent a tiny fraction of the $400 million prize. Barge says most of the past eight months have been spent hiring staff and fulfilling other federal requirements for receiving the grants.

“We just have probably in the last couple of months been able to begin to spend some of that money, because those scopes of work and things had to be approved first,” he says.

And that approval has to come from the federal government. Federal officials haven’t yet okayed the state’s final plan for spending the money. Part of the delay comes with a change in administration. Barge and Governor Nathan Deal both took office in January and they submitted a revised plan earlier this year.

The U.S. Department of Education says that’s not a problem. Two other states that also elected new governors – Florida and New York – are still hashing out the final details of their plans too. And three more just had their plans approved recently.

But the delay has caused some confusion among teachers. Work is just beginning on the plans that could cause the most anxiety for teachers and principals – including overhauls of the state’s performance evaluation system and salary changes that will reward teachers who boost student test scores.

Tim Callahan of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators says teachers have more questions than answers about what Race to the Top will mean for them.

“Teachers from the 26 school districts around the state are pretty much in the dark about what their superintendents have signed them up for, and not a lot of information has filtered down to the rank and file teachers,” he says.

Steven Dollinger, the president of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, says that needs to change.

“We have to do a better job of communicating where we’re going, what the expectations are, where we are along that journey, so people really understand,” he says. “That’s going to be one piece.”

But Dollinger says that Georgia is poised to move forward. The state’s data system to track students from early childhood through high school is now in place in most of the state’s school districts, and that’s an important prerequisite for other key Race to the Top measures. And because Georgia began raising its academic standards several years ago, Dollinger says that the state’s schools won’t need to stretch too far to reach the new national standards.

“I guess you could say we’re not freaking out like some other states are; it’s like they’re almost overwhelmed by the dramatic change in how much their curriculum is shifting,” says Dollinger. “Ours is not shifting as much, but we are very much aware of how much work we still have to do.”

One model for Georgia could be Tennessee, the other Southern Race to the Top state, which won its grant a year ago. That four-month head start on Georgia could provide a harbinger of what lies ahead for Georgia in the next few months. Tennessee’s plan is up and running, and the state has already spent more than $27 million.

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