Feds threaten to withhold $10 million of Georgia’s share of education grant


August 2010: Georgia wins a $400 million Race to the Top education improvement grant from the federal government. The state will share the money with 26 school districts, including those in Gwinnett, DeKalb, Clayton, Cherokee and the city of Atlanta. School districts in Cobb, Fulton and Forsyth counties decline to participate, citing their concern about the federal strings attached to the money.

November 2010: Nathan Deal is elected governor of Georgia. John Barge is elected superintendent.

February 2011: The U.S. Department of Education signs off on detailed plans submitted by Georgia school districts.

June 2011: The state Board of Education votes to spend $758,000 to hire a team of experts to help develop an evaluation system for teachers and administrations based on how their students perform academically.

November 2011: Georgia scales back the pilot of its evaluation system. In part because of new state leadership, the U.S. Department of Education allows Georgia to delay implementation of the evaluation system from fall 2011 to the 2012-2013 school year.

December 2011: The Obama administration raises concern about the slow pace of filling 21 high-level positions tied to grant implementation.

July 2012: The U.S. Department of Education places a $33 million portion of Georgia's grant on high-risk status because of concerns about the development of the new teacher evaluation system.

January 2013: A pilot study of the new system shows that only a tiny fraction of the state's teachers are ineffective, results which are at odds with the state's low scores on some national tests.

February 2013: The U.S. Department of Education singles out Georgia as struggling more than most states in implementing changes promised in its grant application.

July 2013: The U.S. Department of Education warns Georgia that it will withhold $10 million in grant funds if the state does not follow through on its promise to implement a merit pay component to its teacher evaluation system.

The U.S. Department of Education threatened Tuesday to withhold $10 million in grant funds because Georgia’s new teacher evaluation system won’t include the merit pay component the state promised when it pursued the grant.

Tuesday’s threat — outlined in a letter to Gov. Nathan Deal — marks the second time in two years that some portion of Georgia’s $400 million Race to the Top grant has come under threat. Last year, the federal government placed a $33 million section of the grant on “high-risk” status because of technical concerns and delays in implementing a teacher evaluation system.

That portion of the grant remains on high-risk status, though state Department of Education officials expect to provide the federal government with documentation today to satisfy its concerns.

The threat to withhold $10 million in grant funds — the first time the U.S. Department of Eduction has taken such action against any state — centers on whether Georgia, in the new evaluation system, will tie teachers’ pay to their performance.

“This is about Georgia making commitments,” said a senior official with the U.S. Department of Education, who agreed to speak to a group of reporters only if described that way. “We invested in those commitments. And now Georgia says it does not plan to move forward with those commitments.”

Georgia Superintendent John Barge said the new evaluation system, scheduled to be officially rolled out in the 2014-2015 school year, needs a test run before pay can be tied to it.

“The state of Georgia is not ready to implement a statewide merit pay system,” Barge said in an e-mail to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “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.”

Barge and Deal publicly disagreed on the appointment of a state official to oversee the Race to the Top grant, with the superintendent ultimately filling the position with his choice.

Reacting to the possible withholding of $10 million in grant funds, Deal spokesman Brian Robinson said: “Gov. Deal will make sure the state works with the U.S. Department of Education and presents a plan that will fulfill the promises of the state’s original application.”

The senior U.S. Education Department official who briefed reporters Tuesday said Georgia will have until “the beginning of the school year” to demonstrate that it plans to include a merit pay component to its teacher evaluation system.

The official added that it would be easiest to understand Georgia’s grant funds as being in a large bank account the state can access as it implements components of its grant application. If, by the beginning of the school year, Georgia doesn’t demonstrate that it plans to include a merit pay component to its teacher evaluation system, access to $10 million of its grant funds would be blocked.

Georgia would have until September 2015 to add the merit pay component it promised in its grant application. If by that date Georgia does not add such a component, or if the federal government does not agree to allow something else to be implemented in its place, the state would permanently lose access to the $10 million.

Already, the evaluation system has bumped over some potholes. Barge strongly objected to how student survey information would be used, and eventually won approval to change it. And a pilot study showed that only a tiny fraction of the state’s teachers are ineffective, results which run counter to Georgia’s low marks on some national tests.

Adding merit pay to the evaluation system could be a tall order, given its 2014-2015 rollout and Barge’s desire to have it in place for some time before merit pay is tied to it.

That desire places Barge, a conservative Republican who is up for re-election next year, at odds with conservatives who strongly back merit pay as a way to improve a public education system they say is not producing desired results. But Barge’s stance has won plaudits from education groups.

“The USDOE is trying to force states to move faster than is feasible using the blunt cudgel of funding,” said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators. “I hope our DOE will insist on taking the time to try their best to get this right.”

Added Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers: “No profession or company puts something new out front or into practice before it has been tested. Why are teachers treated differently? We hope that Georgia is brave enough to turn down money based on what really works and what does not work for teachers and children.”