By Mc Nelly Torres
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

States that won the Race to the Top (RttT) stimulus education grants have not spent funds quickly enough to launch proposed education reforms,  a new report by the Government Accountability Office shows.

RttT’s first progress report comes almost a year after federal education officials selected winners for the second phase of the $4 billion competitive grant program.

Florida ($700 million) was among the 10 states that won RttT grants during the second phase of the competition.  Tennessee and Delaware were the only winners during the first phase.

The U.S. Department of Education established RttT grant fund to encourage states to reform their elementary and secondary (K-12) education systems and to reward states that have improved student outcomes, such as better high school graduation rates. The effort was a part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Nine of the 12 grantee states said a number of challenges have contributed to the delays. They encountered  difficulty in identifying and hiring qualified staff and complying with state procedures for awarding contracts.  Also, state education officials in Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina and Ohio had difficulties hiring qualified personnel to oversee RttT projects, the report shows.

The GAO report, released last month, examined a number of topics including: (1) actions states took to be competitive for RttT grants; (2) how grantees plan to use their grants and whether selected non-grantees have chosen to move forward with their reform plans; (3) what challenges, if any, have affected early implementation of states’ reform efforts; and (4) The Department of Education’s efforts to support and oversee states’ use of RttT funds.

Even though most states have barely used their first year of funds as of June 3rd, Florida is one of  four grantees (the others are the District of Columbia, Massachusetts and North Carolina) that have drawn down more than 10 percent of funds allocated for the first year.

Delaware and Tennessee, the two Phase One winners, have drawn down 36 and 50 percent, respectively, since they received their awards in March of 2010. The two states have had access to the funds for nearly a year.

The study also found that many states had to change original timelines after reworking plans, while others had to adjust budgets to meet unanticipated salary requirements for positions needed to carry out programs. Further, the education department’s requirements to review and approve each change made on budgets and/or timelines have been among the cause for delays, the report shows.

The report provides detailed information about how the funds would be distributed and for what activities.

Over $3.9 billion will be distributed to states that: implement reforms in developing effective teachers and leaders; improve the lowest-achieving schools; expand student data systems; enhance standards and assessments. States, collectively, plan to use the largest share of their $2 billion in RttT funds, nearly one-third, to improve the effectiveness of teachers and leaders. The next largest share – about $478 million – will be used to turn around their lowest-achieving schools, the report shows.

While the RttT competition prompted a robust national dialogue about comprehensive education reform, the GAO report concluded that “it is too early to know whether these initiatives will help close achievement gaps or significantly improve outcomes for K-12 students.”

“Whether the momentum around the reform initiatives and efforts to implement them can be sustained over time may depend on a number of factors,” says the report. Among the factors is “the progress that states make as they begin to implement their reform initiatives.”