Grant Competition Divides La. Education Groups

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Fifty-nine school districts agreed to participate in Louisiana's competition for a slice of $4 billion in federal "Race to the Top" education grant money, even as education groups remain divided about the program's worth to classrooms.

Superintendent of Education Paul Pastorek announced Monday that most of the state's 70 public school districts have declared their interest in pursuing the grant dollars.

Pastorek stood with a group of education leaders at a Baton Rouge middle school to show solidarity for the state's application, which could require changes in teacher evaluations, teacher pay, student assessments and leadership at low-performing schools.

"We haven't always agreed on everything as we've had these discussions, but we have agreed on enough that we do believe it is worth proceeding forward," Pastorek said.

But support for the application is far from united.

The Louisiana School Boards Association opposes state participation in Race to the Top, and the Louisiana Association of Educators, a union whose leader stood with Pastorek on Monday, didn't pledge support, but only to continue talking to Pastorek about the grant application.

"There are concerns ... We want to be involved to mold what needs to happen," said Joyce Haynes, president of the LAE.

Among the concerns of education officials are provisions that could increase the number of charter schools, which are publicly funded but independent of local school boards, and that would tie teacher pay to student test scores and other performance measures. Others question how schools would afford to continue the changes once the federal money runs out after four years.

Steve Monaghan, president of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers, said while his organization doesn't agree with everything in the plan, it is supportive.

"We have far too many children who are poor, far too many children who have needs to turn away from the offering of the federal government," Monaghan said.

The White House has large discretion over how the grants are awarded, and the money is to be targeted toward school improvements that President Barack Obama wants states to pursue, like tougher academic standards, student performance tracking and the expansion of charter schools.

While other states have changed their laws to be more appealing for the Race to the Top competition, Pastorek said he doesn't expect to ask Louisiana lawmakers for statute changes to participate in the grant program.

Initial estimates from federal officials show Louisiana could be eligible for up to $175 million in Race to the Top money, but Pastorek said the state intends to apply for $300 million. The final application is due to the U.S. Department of Education on Jan. 19, and decisions are expected in April.

Pastorek said states with unification among education leaders and support from education "stakeholders" get more points in application evaluations.

State school districts have to enter into more detailed agreements with the Louisiana Department of Education by Jan. 11 if they want to be included in the application for grant money. Pastorek said he doesn't expect all the districts that signed up as interested to participate in the final grant program.

The 11 districts that didn't agree to participate in Race to the Top were Bienville, Bossier, Caldwell, Claiborne, Concordia, Grant, Jackson, Natchitoches, St. Charles and West Carroll parish school districts and the Central Community school system.

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