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In stunner, Florida doesn't win Race to the Top education grant

In a huge surprise, Florida did not win a massive federal education grant that would have pushed school districts to change how they pay and evaluate teachers and turn around struggling schools.

Florida was widely considered a leading contender for a share of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund, the centerpiece of President Barack Obama's education agenda.

But on Monday, the U.S. Department of Education announced only two first-round winners: Delaware and Tennessee.

Florida — which asked for more than $1 billion — finished fourth, behind Georgia.

"This would be the biggest shock of my professional career," Florida Board of Education chairman T. Willard Fair told the St. Petersburg Times.

Florida will apply for a second round of Race to the Top grants, which will be announced this fall. And supporters vowed to push the changes listed in Florida's application whether Florida lands one of the coveted grants or not.

Indeed, many of the biggest changes are contained in SB 6, a lightning-rod bill now racing through the Florida Legislature over teacher objections.

Monday's news gave opponents of SB 6 hope that the Obama administration may be a brake on Republican efforts to accelerate its vision of school reform. Until now, the president has disappointed many teachers in Florida, even though teachers unions are a pillar of the Democratic Party.

"It's about time they (Republicans) put good public policy over politics," said Rep. Marty Kiar, a Democrat who sits on the House PreK-12 Policy Committee. "This is the total fault of the majority party for pushing through bad policies."

Florida's application was hurt, in part, by a lack of support from teachers unions.

Most of the state's 67 school districts signed on to the application, but only five of 67 local unions did so. Both Delaware and Tennessee had strong union support for their applications — a fact highlighted by federal officials.

On a 500-point scale based on a broad range of criteria, Florida came in just 12.8 points behind No. 2 Tennessee. It scored 11.6 points lower than Tennessee on "state success factors," which accounts for stakeholder support and capacity to carry reforms.

But Florida also scored lower in data collection and "improving teacher and principal effectiveness based on performance."

"Buy-in was a piece of the application, but by no means a determining factor," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a conference call with reporters.

Union leaders and Democratic lawmakers, however, said it's clear that the lack of teacher support hurt. Republican lawmakers and their allies were happy to agree.

The Florida Department of Education, which crafted the application, "really believes that they can be a steamroller … and everybody will just take it," said Florida Education Association president Andy Ford. Now "we can start over and have a serious conversation."

"I wasn't willing to turn down $1 billion for public education. Apparently, FEA United was," countered Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, chairwoman of the Senate PreK-12 Policy Committee. "How they ever expect to get a pay raise in this economy is beyond me."

In recent months, observers as varied as Education Week, the Fordham Institute and the New Teacher Project all ranked Florida at or near the top of their likely-winners lists. The reason: Florida's record of reform in the past decade, which dovetails with many policies favored by the Obama administration, and an application that offered concrete detail on how to build on those earlier steps.

Andy Smarick, a former education official in the George W. Bush administration, wrote on the Fordham Institute blog Monday morning that Florida was the only state deserving of one of the grants.

But after the announcement, he suggested Florida teachers had won a big victory. The U.S. Department of Education made clear it wanted bold reform plans and stakeholder support, said Smarick, a distinguished visiting fellow at Fordham.

Florida had the former but not the latter.

"I think Florida may be in the most difficult position in the entire nation right now," Smarick said. "They have to think which of their bold reforms do they have to roll back to get stakeholder support."

Key state lawmakers said that won't happen.

Passage of legislation such as SB 6 will help Florida's odds of winning a second-round grant, not hurt it, said Rep. John Legg, R-Port Richey, who chairs the House PreK-12 Policy Committee.

Among other things, SB 6 would make it easier to fire teachers and ties teacher pay directly to student performance.

"If the Obama administration under Race to the Top is serious about what they are asking, that is what (those bills) are accomplishing," Legg said. "If you make compromises on those bills, then you make compromises on Race to the Top."

Those ideas will be pursued no matter what happens with the federal grant, said Sen. John Thrasher, R-Orange Park, the chief sponsor of SB 6 and a close ally of former Gov. Jeb Bush.

"I think our ideas are good," Thrasher said. "The only thing I see is you've got some union people who don't want to do that."

But critics said Monday's announcement sent a different message to Florida lawmakers: Slow down.

"Florida went well beyond the pale," said Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach. "This is a sign we should reconsider."

Applications for round two of Race to the Top are due June 1. Florida's top education official left no doubt the state will try again.

"Florida's race is far from over," Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith said in a statement.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614.

Fast facts

What's next?

Applications for the second round of Race to the Top are due June 1. The winners will be announced in the fall, and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Monday there could be 10 to 15. Florida Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith said Florida will apply.

Fast facts

What is Race to the Top?

It is a $4.35 billion federal grant program that is the centerpiece of President Barack Obama's education agenda. States that apply must show how they're going to progress in four areas: improving teacher and principal quality; turning around struggling schools; beefing up standards and curriculum; and building better student data systems.

In stunner, Florida doesn't win Race to the Top education grant 03/29/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 29, 2010 11:34pm]
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