Published Online: March 30, 2010

Fla. Schools Chief Vows 'Race Is Far From Over'

Florida fell short on school district participation and teachers union support Monday in its bid to win a federal "Race to the Top" education grant, but it'll get another chance to compete in a second round.

Florida ranked fourth among 16 finalists, but the U.S. Department of Education selected only the two highest scoring states, Delaware and Tennessee, in the first round of the competition. Georgia was third.

Florida had sought up to $1.1 billion of the $4.35 billion in stimulus money made available to the states for innovative education programs.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced that a second round of applications will be due June 1, but with new rules limiting Florida to a maximum of $700 million. States that came close on the first round such as Florida will not necessarily have a leg up, Duncan said.

"With only two winners announced in this initial round of funding and $3.4 billion still on the table, Florida's race is far from over," state Education Commissioner Eric Smith said in a statement. He predicted Florida "will be in a very strong position to win this next phase."

Duncan said the Delaware and Tennessee plans were impressive because they will affect every student in those states.

In contrast, four of Florida's 67 school districts declined to endorse the state's application.

"That's a factor," Duncan said. "It's not the determining factor, but it's one thing we're looking at."

He said Race to the Top "isn't about funding nice pilot programs. This is about taking student success, student achievement to an entirely different level."

The two winning states also had near unanimous union acceptance while Florida's plan drew support from local union leaders in only five districts.

A key sticking point: Florida's application featured a statewide merit pay plan for teachers, based largely on how well their students do on standardized tests. That's something most teachers unions have resisted.

Asked if states could win in the second round without union buy-in, though, Duncan said, "There are no make or break questions."

The Florida Education Association urged affiliates not to endorse the application and accused state education officials of failing to include the statewide union in developing it.

FEA President Andy Ford called Florida's failure "unfortunate but understandable" because the Department of Education went back on an agreement to consult with the union by issuing a take-it-or-leave it plan in December.

"We tried to talk about it in January and it was still nonnegotiable," Ford said. "You can't bargain with somebody who's not willing to listen to you."

Bill Montford, chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, agreed that lack of union support "had a negative effect."

"We're going to have to somehow reach more of an agreement among all stakeholders," Montford said.

Detailed scores and comments by reviewers show Florida compared favorably and even topped the winning states in some categories. It scored 69 out of 70 possible points for standards and assessments.

Florida, however, lagged on success factors such as school district participation and stakeholder support.

"The application does not address how the state will move forward assertively to generate union buy-in," one reviewer wrote.

Department of Education spokesman Tom Butler said agency officials were busy reviewing 60 pages of comments and not yet ready to discuss the reasons why the application failed.

Gov. Charlie Crist went to Washington, D.C., to advocate for Florida's proposal and spoke with Duncan by phone Monday. In a statement, Crist said Florida will focus on "the next round so that we can ensure long term learning benefits for our students."

The Florida Senate last week passed a bill (SB 6) tracking the Race to the Top application including a requirement for merit pay plans linked to test scores. The House has not yet acted on the legislation, which has drawn union opposition.

"Maybe they need to re-evaluate where they're going," Ford said. "I know I've never seen the reaction of teachers like I've seen in the last few weeks. They are very, very angry and rightfully so."

The bill's sponsor, Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said the legislation, which also would make it easier to fire teachers, does not depend on federal funding. Thrasher, who also chairs the Florida Republican Party, said the bill would reward quality teachers and criticized the union for focusing on its own interests rather than those of "hard-working teachers, students and Floridians."

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