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US plans to withhold $10 million of education grant to Georgia

By By Renee Schoof

McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Education Department told Georgia Tuesday that it plans to withdraw $10 million of the state’s $400 million Race to the Top education grant because the state reneged on an agreement to base teacher and principal pay on performance evaluations.

In a letter to Gov. Nathan Deal, the department said it would begin procedures to withhold the money unless the state quickly shows it will go back to the compensation plan it agreed to when it applied for the grant.

Federal education officials often have said they would be “tight on goals and loose on means” with Race to the Top grants. That meant states would have flexibility in how they implemented the changes they agreed to undertake in exchange for funding.

In Race to the Top, started in 2009 at the beginning of the Obama administration, states competed for grants on the basis of plans for education reforms. Among other things, they agreed to pursue standards showing that high school graduates were ready for college or jobs, to intervene to improve their worst schools and use to data to inform decisions.

This is the first time that the department has moved to withhold part of a Race to the Top grant, department spokesman Cameron French said.

Georgia received its grant under the program in 2010.

The withholding would begin with a notice to be sent before the start of the school year if the state doesn’t comply with the demands in the letter, a senior Education Department official said on the condition of anonymity. The state could appeal the decision.

The letter to Deal on Tuesday from Ann Whalen, the director of policy and program implementation, said Georgia had changed its plans and would no longer change how it pays teachers and principals to tie increases to performance.

Instead, it plans to give one-time bonused to teachers and principals who reduce the achievement gap in high-needs schools next year. It also plans one-time bonuses to teachers and principals based on based on the evaluation system in 2014-15.

That’s a “change of scope” that “significantly decreases or eliminates reform” in that area, Whalen wrote.

The Education Department made the announcement late Tuesday. Requests for comment by the governor’s office were not returned after business hours.