Idaho Writing Application for Federal Grant Program

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Idaho hopes to win $75 million or more in competitive federal grants for public schools, money that officials say could be the state's only opportunity to boost funding for education in the next few years.

Idaho will have to alter some education rules to get in line with the federal Department of Education's "Race to the Top" grant program, such as changing the law that limits the number of new charter schools to six a year.

But in a state where lawmakers earlier this year agreed to cut public education funding for the first time in generations, and more cuts are expected, a chance at even a sliver of the $5 billion pot of money is too tempting to ignore.

"Race to the Top is the only opportunity for education to get additional funding over the next two to three years," state Department of Education spokeswoman Melissa McGrath said.

The grant application is due on Jan. 19 and Idaho's proposal will include a plan to lift the cap on charter schools and pay teachers based on performance. These are both the types of education reforms Idaho public schools chief Tom Luna supports, but has not been able to get approval for in the past.

"Many of the things called for in the grant are things we've been working on for some time," Luna said, "with this money we'll just be able to get it done sooner."

Several states have already rewritten education laws and cut deals with unions to boost their chances at Race to the Top awards. A state will have to meet a series of conditions to earn up to 500 points and boost its chances.

The $5 billion was part of the economic stimulus passed this year. The Obama administration opened the competition Nov. 12 with grant guidelines for ideas like charter schools or judging teachers based on student test scores.

While teachers unions nationally criticized the first set of proposed grant rules in August for relying too heavily on test scores and charter schools, that criticism has tempered with the release of final guidelines this month.

Unions had argued that student achievement is much more than a score on a standardized test. In response, the U.S. Department of Education changed the rules to say that teachers and principals must be judged on several different measures of student achievement, but that test scores should play a significant role.

In Idaho, the state teachers union fought the last effort by the Legislature to come up with a plan to reward teachers based on their performance, not their years in the classroom, and the plan failed during the 2008 session.

The teachers union is now among groups working with the state Department of Education on a pay-for-performance plan to be included in Idaho's application for Race to the Top.

The plan currently being discussed would give local school districts more flexibility in rewarding teachers, using measures other than Idaho Standards Achievement Test scores. One idea would allow the option of rewarding teachers based on local indicators, such as graduation or dropout rates.

"We are excited to hear that student growth and multiple measures will be a part of the grant, rather than teachers being paid or evaluated on a single test score," Idaho teachers union president Sherri Wood said.

The union, however, does have concerns about what happens when the grant funding runs out, Wood said, adding that she is skeptical Idaho lawmakers will be willing to pick up the tab for a pay-for-performance plan when that happens.

"I'm not sure how this is sustainable," she said.

Also, public education funding is expected to be cut again during the 2010 Idaho Legislature to help cover the state's remaining $52 million budget shortfall.

Idaho teachers have immediate needs, Wood said, and some are questioning a grant proposal to spending millions on a pay-for-performance plan when vacant positions have been left unfilled and class sizes have increased. Teachers would much rather see the money go to the hiring of more educators, she said.

"It just feels strange, there are some very definite needs," Wood said. "It almost seems like we're talking about frills."

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