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Race to the Top money dwindling, but Huffman says not to worry

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An especially lean education budget will have only a modest impact on Tennessee schools next year, outgoing education commissioner Kevin Huffman said after a budget hearing last Friday.

Not only is the Tennessee Department of Education down to the last 10 percent of a $500 million federal Race to the Top grant, but Gov. Bill Haslam also expects officials to cut 7 percent from the department budget.

Tennessee won the Race to the Top competition in 2010, and spent the bulk of those funds on infrastructure changes or one-time costs, including technology, Huffman said.

He said that the state and local districts always knew the money would run out in four years, and have planned accordingly.

“I don’t think you’re going to see a noticeable thing,” he said.

Of the remaining funds, Huffman said, “We’re tracking very carefully and trying to make sure that we can use every dollar on meaningful projects before it goes away.”

The one program funded by Race to the Top that might be in be in jeopardy is summer training for teachers, focused on the Common Core State Standards.

The trainings, which Chalkbeat attended in August, are funded for the summer of 2015. But if the state wants to keep the trainings alive, officials probably will need to budget for them out of its own funds in the future. Huffman said surveys showed that teachers found the training valuable, and studies showed that teachers who attended — about 14,000 last year — perform better in the classroom.

“It’s a lot of bang for the buck if we can do it,” he said.

To fulfill Haslam’s request to slash 7 percent of the budget — more than $9,500,000 — the Department of Education recommended cutting grants to science museums, to school districts for health-related activities and school safety efforts, and to extended learning programs.

Huffman said the only two budget increases were BEP funding, which is the money the state appropriates to local districts, and assessment costs.

The BEP funding increase is due to projected increase in student enrollment.

Huffman, of course, won’t be around to oversee how the education department deals with next year’s budget. He announced his resignation in November, and plans to leave office not later than Haslam’s inauguration Jan. 17.

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