Florida's education department pushes school districts, unions to back Race to the Top grants

The Obama administration has laid $4.35 billion on the table for education reform, and Florida wants its share.

Hoping to bolster its claim on a $700 million chunk of the fund, Florida's Department of Education has asked school superintendents, board chairmen and teachers union leaders to agree in writing to abide by the state's plans for the money if it comes.

Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith has asked for a statement of intent to participate by next Friday, with a formal agreement to come by Jan. 12 — a week before the federal application is due. If districts don't participate, they won't get a share.

"Although we are well-positioned to receive this unprecedented level of funding, our competitive edge in this race is contingent on our ability to work together effectively," Smith wrote in a letter that superintendents got via e-mail at midnight Wednesday.

The haste at which he is asking the local officials to signal their backing for the plan has frustrated many district and union officials. Winter break is just days away, making it difficult for districts to convene their boards and employee groups for meaningful discussions about the document they saw for the first time Thursday.

The Hernando and Pasco school boards quickly added the topic to their planned meeting agendas. Pinellas had it scheduled for Tuesday.

"I can't understand why they are pushing it so quick and not giving everyone a better understanding of what it consists of," Hernando School Board chairman Pat Fagan said. "I would think none of the school districts in the state understand exactly what they're asking for."

Several teachers union leaders called the state's time line unrealistic. Leaders said they weren't sure if they would agree to terms such as having FCAT results count for up to half of teachers' evaluations or creating a pay scale that gives raises based on evaluations.

"I think it's just another example of the government dangling the carrot of money at a time when so little money has been made available, and thinking districts and teachers who are so desperate will agree to anything to get the money," said Lynne Webb, United School Employees of Pasco's president. "I am not going to allow us to be bullied into signing off on something we don't fully understand."

To expect districts to have in-depth analysis and negotiations over such game-changing issues in a few short weeks, or even a few months, "is not real respectful of reality," said Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association president Jean Clements.

"I'm sure this is going to give many districts heartburn."

Smith suggested that the state's request, and its plans for the reform program called Race to the Top, should come as no surprise. Many of the key points have been on the table since summer.

"Although the time frame to commit, talk and plan is short, there is no doubt that the benefits that would come as a result of this unprecedented amount of funding will be well worth the effort," Smith said in an e-mail to the Times.

Pinellas School Board chairwoman Carol Cook wasn't so sure of that.

She said she'd be willing to register for the race, but argued that districts need an opt-out clause in case they decide not to run it. The agreement states that districts would be "committed to working on all applicable portions of the State Plan," meaning disagreement with just one part could kill support.

"I don't want to do it just for the sake of the money," Cook said. "I'm willing to go forward with the memorandum of understanding if, when it comes down to it, we are doing these things because they are good for kids and good for our district. … I'm tired of doing things just for the sake of the money because they won't fund us appropriately."

Pasco schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino figured that, like it or not, the state is on a path to adopt the Race to the Top guidelines regardless of district support. The path has been clear since the FCAT's birth, she said, through several iterations of performance pay straight up to the state's unveiling of differentiated accountability last year.

The question is whether to take the money and comply, or not take the money and still have to comply, Fiorentino said.

She has recommended her School Board sign the memorandum of understanding when it meets next Tuesday, saying the grant simply seeks to implement the "best practices" that Pasco schools already use to improve student achievement.

Hillsborough schools superintendent MaryEllen Elia said her district has been working long hours to move toward improving teacher quality. This initiative, regardless of tight turnarounds, fits right in.

"We're going to work on this," Elia said. "I am committed to support the agendas that are part of Race to the Top."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Fast facts

Millions at stake

The Florida Department of Education has said it's seeking as much as $700 million from the Obama administration's Race to the Top education innovation grant. Half of the money would go to districts. The application deadline is Jan. 19.

Here's how much the Tampa Bay area districts could receive, if they agree to the terms and the state receives the grant:

Hernando:

$1.1 to $2.2 million

Hillsborough:

$12.2 to $24.4 million

Pasco:

$4.1 to $8.2 million

Pinellas:

$7.4 to $14.8 million

Source: Florida Department of Education

Florida's education department pushes school districts, unions to back Race to the Top grants 12/10/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 10, 2009 10:32pm]

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