Just months after losing its first bid for millions in federal education reform funding, Florida found itself in the money on Tuesday.
Federal officials awarded the state up to $700 million in the second round of President Barack Obama's ambitious Race to the Top initiative.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called Florida's application "fantastic." The state, he said, demonstrated broad support for its reform efforts, particularly compared to its past proposal, which drew backing from a mere handful of teachers unions. It has strong data systems and a history of raising the bar for all students, he added.
"Florida's students, teachers and schools won a great victory today," Gov. Charlie Crist said Tuesday.
Half the money will go to statewide reform projects and half to participating local districts. Exact amounts will be calculated later, but Hillsborough may get as much as $24 million and hopes to apply it as part of the district's $102 million share in its seven-year reform effort funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen said the grant could bring in as much as $6 million a year to her district and she hopes much of it could be channeled to merit and differential pay for teachers at the district's most struggling schools.
"That's heavy lifting they'll be doing," she said.
Florida's plan calls for school districts to help produce big results by 2015:
• Doubling the percentage of high school students who graduate with at least a year's worth of college credit from 22 percent to 44 percent.
• Cutting in half the state's achievement gap in math and reading, as measured by the Nation's Report Card.
• Increasing the number of students performing at or above proficiency levels on the Nation's Report Card, to outperform the nation's best states (Connecticut and Massachusetts).
In order to get there, local school districts must still work through some hotly contested proposals, such as attaching more significance to student achievement when evaluating and paying teachers. They have 90 days to submit plans to the state that are approved by their teacher unions and school boards.
"The clock is ticking," Florida Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith said during a news conference Tuesday, stressing that negotiations need not be completed as long as an overarching plan is in place.
He suggested the broad union support Florida's application received in round two — quite different from the first failed effort — should make it easier to push the state to its goals. Changes to state law shouldn't even be needed, Smith added, if the parties are willing to collaborate and compromise.
"There is nothing that prevents us from doing this work, except for ourselves," he said.
Janssen said she did not anticipate much difficulty hashing out a plan with the local teachers union. "We've done some of the heavy lifting already," she said.
Pinellas teachers union president Kim Black was more reserved.
"It's clear that they (the struggling schools) need additional resources," she said. "And if this is the way we can get additional resources, then it's a great thing. We'll just have to sit down at the table and work hard to make it work."
Pasco's teacher's union so far has refused to sign the state's memorandum of understanding agreeing to the Race to the Top terms. "I'm not sure there's going to be enough money available to make it worth jumping through all those hoops," said Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco.
It remains unclear how many of Florida's 67 school districts will ultimately craft plans that jibe with the state's application.
In 54 districts, both district officials and local unions signed on to the state's application, including Hillsborough and Pinellas. But the St. Petersburg Times found that 15 of them – representing more than 700,000 students — have side agreements that some education observers say conflict with the state's bid.
Most of those side agreements have language that says any collectively bargained changes will "expire upon either the expiration of the RTTT grant or upon the expiration of the funding of the grant, whichever occurs first." That language appears to counter state and federal goals of using Race to the Top to sow long-term reform.
State Board of Education chairman T. Willard Fair said he expected many districts to participate despite the side agreements, if only because they don't want to turn down money.
If they do, he said, "the public is going to be outraged."
Some political observers say Crist deserves credit for the state's success, because he gave the teachers unions and other stakeholders direct input into the second Race to the Top application after he vetoed Senate Bill 6 — the controversial bill that would have overhauled the teaching profession. Fair, a close ally of former Gov. Jeb Bush, saw it differently.
"We really didn't get it the first time because we asked for too much money," he said. "The whole process isn't immune to politics. Anybody who doesn't understand that doesn't live in the real world."
Times staff writer Tom Marshall contributed to this report.