Race to the Top support still in question

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LEWISTON — The Maine Department of Education is pressing forward with its Race to the Top application in hopes of getting $75 million in education funding from the federal government.

Maine has gone so far as to change state law to give it a better chance in the competition that rewards states for reforming education, but it remained unclear Wednesday whether its application would get the support it needs from teachers.

The Maine Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, will wait until it sees the state’s 150-page application — either at the end of this week or the beginning of next — before advising local union leaders whether to support it.

The application will, among other things, tell the federal government what kind of reforms Maine is willing to make and what it would like to do with $75 million. Ideally, the federal government wants states to have the backing of teachers, superintendents and school boards for the changes proposed by education departments. Maine could still get the money if teachers don’t support the application, but the odds would go down.

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Education Commissioner Susan Gendron said she was hopeful the application would have local support or that Maine’s application would be strong enough to get the money even if the support isn’t there.

The Race to the Top program rewards states that have ambitious plans for reforming education by giving them millions of dollars to enact those plans. With their applications, states earn points based on such things as how many charter schools they allow and how much support they have from teachers, superintendents and school boards for their reforms. The states with the most points win.

More than $4.3 billion in grants are to be awarded in two rounds. In the first round, only Delaware and Tennessee received funding. About $3.4 billion remains for round two. The deadline for applications is June 1.

A few states have said they won’t compete in round two. Some say they don’t have a chance at winning because they don’t have support of their teachers’ unions or they can’t meet other criteria.

In round one, Maine also couldn’t meet much of the Race to the Top criteria, so it didn’t apply.

This spring, it changed three laws to give it a chance in round two. The revised laws allow student performance to be linked to teacher evaluations, allow the adoption of a new set of core standards for K-12 students and allow school districts to authorize autonomous “innovation” schools.

All are strongly encouraged by the Race to the Top program, so much so that at least one group believes Maine should have made those new laws even stronger — by allowing charter schools rather than “innovative schools,” for example — to improve its application.

“I thought it was an opportunity that was lost, but the application is going to be what it’s going to be. I’m eager to see it,” said Steve Bowen of the Maine Heritage Policy Center. “But, hey, maybe there’s the possibility that we win. Like I said, I think it’s unlikely, but if we win, I think that’s going to be a great thing for Maine.”

The Maine School Management Association has withheld judgment, saying proposed reforms may be good for one school system but bad for another. As a statewide organization, it doesn’t want to take sides.

“This is really a local control matter,” said Executive Director Dale Douglass.

Maine Education Association Executive Director Mark Gray said the teachers’ union may recommend that local leaders not support the application if proposed reforms infringe on union contracts and if the union is unhappy with how the state factors student assessments into teacher evaluations. A panel representing teachers, school officials and others has been convened to create, by May 14, at least one model for teacher evaluations to be tied to student assessments.

Even if it recommends that local leaders support the state’s Race to the Top application, Gray said the union isn’t convinced that all of the reforms and changes Maine would have to make will be worth it.

“The question we’ve been wrestling with is, ‘Can we do all the things that we need to do to make ourselves competitive and, more importantly, can we sustain it all?'” Gray said.

Gendron says yes. And while she wants support and has held meetings with teachers and school leaders to try to get it, she believes Maine should move forward with its application even if teachers decide not to back it.

“For us to not even try is, I think, the wrong message to send to our schools,” she said. “To be honest with you, shame on us if we don’t even try.”

ltice@sunjournal.com

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