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In Flip-Flop, Montana Opts to Vie for Race to Top

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Months after Montana education leaders said the requirements for a type of federal education grant pushed an urban agenda onto rural states, those same leaders are putting together an application for the next round of Race to the Top grants.

Montana was one of only 10 states that did not apply for the first round of funding. Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau said at the time that Montana shouldn't conform to "one-size-fits-all" federal requirements.

In July, Juneau wrote to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, urging major changes to the Race to the Top rules. The letter was signed by every major education group in the state.

Juneau said that for Montana to qualify for the program, it would have to weaken local control of schools, change how it evaluates teachers in ways that would violate labor contracts and possibly agree to move quality teachers from one district to another.

Now with state revenues shrinking and school districts facing a $42 million shortfall, education officials are compiling an application. Montana could be eligible for $25 million to $75 million.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer stressed that Montana would develop a "Montana plan" that "addresses our unique set of Montana challenges."

Juneau, meeting with federal officials in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, said some low-performing Montana schools truly need reform, and Race to the Top could help Montana educators to find solutions.

Race to the Top originally stressed that states must allow charter schools, but now it calls for "innovative" schools, Juneau said, adding Montana has many innovative schools.

Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT teacher's union, was a sharp critic of Race to the Top last fall, calling it "devastating and irrational" and vowing to "do everything in our power" to keep the state from applying, unless the rules were changed.

Now, Fever said he'll help write the state's application. He said he wants to make sure the state doesn't surrender core values like local control, keeping schools public, collective bargaining and requiring that teachers be licensed. The Montana School Boards Association, School Administrators of Montana and the Montana Rural Education Association have also said they're willing to work on the state's application.

"It's probably not wise to thumb our nose at the federal government and say, 'No way, Jose,'" Fever said. "It's one-time money, but we've been funding a lot of things with one-time-only money. When times are really right, you'll take your revenue streams wherever you can find them."

Once Montana's application is put together, it will be presented to school districts for feedback. School districts must sign on to apply for the funds, Juneau said.

The application deadline is June 1.

Juneau said Montana has a chance of winning money in the second round, noting that of the 15 states that were finalists in the first round, only one was in the West. She said she hopes the Obama administration will "balance that out."

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