Published Online: April 19, 2010

Teachers' Union, State Spar Over Federal Grant Bid

The president of Vermont's main teachers' union complained Monday that teachers had been cut out of the process of applying for a federal grant that could net the state $38 million for schools in a time of strapped budgets.

The state commissioner of education, Armando Vilaseca, disputed the complaint but said the state likely won't get the money anyway because it lacks the charter schools and teacher pay tied to student performance being pushed by President Barack Obama's administration.

At issue is money from the Race to the Top program, a $4.5 billion package of incentives administered by the U.S. Department of Education to improve school performance.

Vilaseca said in an interview that the program appears geared to larger, more urban and more troubled school districts than most of those in Vermont.

Vermont skipped the first round of applications for the money. Vilaseca said he would decide this week whether to devote the estimated 2,000 staff hours in his department into applying in the second round. Applications are due June 1.

"I am not very hopeful" of Vermont's chances for success, the commissioner said.

The comments followed a news conference by Martha Allen, president of the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association. The union issued a statement saying Race to the Top applicants "must show that state education officials worked closely with teachers and their union in developing its proposal."

She said the best information the union had received to date about the Department of Education's grant application was in a survey Vilaseca's office sent to local school superintendents, school boards and union presidents last week.

"It is important that Vermont-NEA play a role in the development of the application," Allen said. "There are certain components in the application that may not be suitable to Vermont's education community."

She cited tying teacher evaluations to student performance as one example. A teacher in a small, rural district may have a class dominated by highly motivated students one year, followed by one in which students with special needs take up much of the teacher's time. Student performance should be just one measure used to judge a teacher's work, Allen said.

Another complaint from the state concerns pressure from Washington for sanctions against a state's lowest-achieving schools. Those could include firing all teachers, Allen said.

"Our lowest-achieving schools would not be identified if they were in another state," she said. "Because of our high test scores in the state, these schools happen to fall at the bottom of the list, but that does not mean they are substandard."

The NEA said Allen planned to meet with Vilaseca on Tuesday "to persuade him to begin collaborating" on the application.

Vilaseca insisted such collaboration had been occurring all along. "We're all part of the same team here," he said. He said one union representative had been invited to meetings on the Race to the Top application since last year.

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