State-Level Wrangling Persists on 'Race to Top'

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Legislators, union leaders, and school oversight organizations continued to clamor this week for their say on how—or whether—states should prepare to align themselves with federal guidelines covering the competition for $4 billion in Race to the Top Fund economic-stimulus money.

Teachers’ unions in Florida and Minnesota have come out in recent days against current plans to revamp their states’ education laws, taking particular issue with merit-pay programs. California and Michigan legislatures have been locked in contentious deliberations for weeks over potential policy changes.

And while the New York Board of Regents has come out with its own suggested changes to state education policy to help meet federal guidelines, the Louisiana Board of Education early this week opposed seeking Race to the Top Funding.

Other states are opting to bypass applying for the first of round of grant distribution. The deadline for applications is Jan. 19, with grants expected to be distributed in April.

The U.S. Department of Education is expected to favor states that allow for flexible charter school growth, use merit-pay programs to evaluate teachers and principals on student performance, and implement data systems to improve instruction.

A second round of stimulus money is expected to be distributed later in the year.

Union Objections

In Florida, the statewide teachers’ union Dec. 17 discouraged local affiliates from endorsing the state’s application for up to $700 million in Race to the Top grant money that would require the adoption of merit-pay plans.

Florida Education Association President Andy Ford called the proposal “fatally flawed” in an open letter to Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith that was published as an advertisement in the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper.

There was similar pressure a day before in Minnesota, where Tom Dooher, the president of Education Minnesota, which is affiliated with both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, said the state department of education’s current draft proposal would result in “more bureaucracy, more top-down control from the state into our local school districts, and more testing at the expense of great teaching.”

Minnesota stands to attract $175 million to $250 million if its proposal for school innovation is accepted, but stakeholder backing is among the factors considered.

In Florida, Smith’s plan would require school districts and their teachers’ unions to adopt local merit-pay plans based at least 50 percent on how each teacher’s students do on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test—FCAT—or other exams as a condition for receiving grant money.

Ford’s letter does not specifically mention the merit-pay requirement but calls the application for a Race to the Top grant “prescriptive, topdown, and unreasonable.” It also fails to focus on struggling schools as envisioned by the Obama administration but allocates money to all schools in participating districts, Ford wrote.

“We sure hope the department of education listens to the teachers and the school employees on this and adjusts its guidelines,” said union spokesman Mark Pudlow.

Smith responded in a letter to Ford, writing he was disappointed in the union’s position and that the proposal was created in partnership with stakeholders including teachers’ unions.

“Florida’s students, families, and teachers are well-deserving of these grant dollars, especially in light of current economic challenges, and it is my hope that we can continue to pursue this opportunity through open and honest dialogue,” Smith wrote.

The biggest flashpoint in Minnesota is how student achievement—mostly measured through test results—will be used in determining teacher pay and job security.

Minnesota already has a voluntary pay-for-performance program known as QComp that is in place in 76 districts and charter schools, covering a combined 30 percent of the student population in public schools.

A range of criteria is used to assess teachers, ranging from peer reviews to principal evaluations. Under the proposed application, officials would put more weight on student achievement. Only districts that agree to the tougher standards would be in line for money Minnesota gets; at least half of each state’s award must flow through to school districts.

Minnesota education department spokesman Bill Walsh said the union’s objections are better directed at federal officials, who are demanding more accountability.

“If they want the money, they are going to have to do the reform,” Walsh said. “The plan can’t get weakened to the point we lose our competitive advantage with other states. The Obama administration is going to pick 10 or 15 states based on the strength of their plan.”

Legislative Wrangling

In California and Michigan, legislative clashes have impeded progress toward an application.

The California Senate appeared to reach a compromise Dec. 17 when it approved legislation that would clear the way to compete in the funding competition, but the state’s chances of securing up to $700 million for school reforms remained in limbo.

After late-night negotiations in the past several days, state Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, introduced new legislation Dec. 17 that attempted to forge a compromise between the two houses on education reform. Divisions remained, however, and Romero said she would work through the holidays to complete a bill with broad support and which Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would sign.

An Assembly committee failed to pass Romero’s previous legislation, which Schwarzenegger supported, after the powerful California Teachers Association and other groups lobbied against it.

The proposed changes retained several controversial elements, including allowing parents to petition to close or drastically revamp a badly failing school and allowing them to transfer children out of a failing school to another district.

In Michigan, there were lingering doubts that reforms could be enacted in time for the Jan. 19 deadline, although as of early Dec. 18, key negotiators from the Republican-led Senate and Democrat-led House said they were closer to resolving their differences on education proposals.

New laws to expand opportunities for charter schools, allow the takeover of failing schools and create alternative paths to teacher certification likely are needed for Michigan to have a chance at winning the money.

A key sticking point has been how charter schools might be allowed to expand in the state.

House Democrats favor rules that charter school supporters say would result in limited expansion only in poorly performing districts. Senate Republicans favor rules that would allow greater expansion across the state.

State education organizations are also weighing in on stimulus reform.

The New York Board of Regents recently introduced a new proposal to improve New York state’s public schools that includes far more charter schools and would link teacher compensation and advancement to student performance.

Those are also requirements for New York to qualify for as much as $700 million in Race to the Top funding. But both measures have been successfully opposed so far by the state’s powerful teachers’ unions and the legislature.

Much of the Regents’ proposal requires the legislature’s approval. The plan would allow persistently low-performing schools to be converted to charter schools, potentially by an order of the state education commissioner.

The Louisiana School Boards Association voted Dec. 14 to oppose state participation in a bid for up to $300 million in federal dollars. The group said on its 17-member board concluded it would be risky for school districts to take part in the contest.

Education Week intern Ian Quillen contributed to this story. Copyright 2009 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Vol. 29, Issue 16

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