WASHINGTON — The competition for more than $3 billion in Race to the Top education dollars is so heated it brought at least two state governors to a city hotel Wednesday — and sparked a bit of good-natured trash talking.
As Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and his team stood talking to a gaggle of reporters about their 90-minute presentation, laughter arose from a contingent surrounding Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley — also in town to make a bid for the money.
"We're much better than you guys," the Maryland governor shouted over to Crist.
"I don't think so, governor," Crist retorted. "Florida first, then Maryland."
Indeed, Crist and Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said they believe Florida will finish at the top this time, boasting an application to the U.S. Department of Education that has the support of more than 50 teacher unions in Florida.
At stake is up to $700 million for Florida schools to improve performance.
During the last go-round, Florida placed fourth in the competition and didn't get any of the money up for grabs. Only five of the state's teachers unions supported the application, with most saying it would overturn many locally negotiated contracts regarding raises.
But Crist and Carvalho, who chaired a statewide committee aimed at reaching consensus for the proposal among the state's teachers, school boards and superintendents, said the state's second application is much improved.
"I think the big difference is the level of support, and frankly that's one of the first topics we addressed today," Crist said. "That broad support by the Florida Education Association, the unions around the state, is significantly higher than the first go-around. That cooperation, that collaboration, bodes well for our success."
As proof, they pointed to the state's team, which in addition to Crist and Carvalho, included state Education Commissioner Eric Smith and Florida Education Association President Andy Ford.
"The most critical element that ranks it above the other states' applications is on the issue of teacher quality and stakeholder support for the application," Carvalho said. "It reflects one single united voice in support of reform."
Carvalho noted the application has the support of teachers' unions, parents groups, business groups, superintendents' associations and school board associations.
"It puts us in the position of coming up to Washington and speaking with a single united voice, I think that's our advantage vis a vis the other states," he said.
"Florida spoke with one voice today and I think that is the greatest leverage we have."
Florida is competing against 17 other states and the District of Columbia for the more than $3 billion available as part of the federal stimulus package.
States that participate must commit to four areas of education reform: raising standards, using data, improving teacher quality and turning around chronically failing schools.
Each team gave a 30-minute presentation on its plan, then fielded questions for an hour. The Department of Education hopes to announce the winners in the coming weeks.