Strong opposition from teachers unions could be enough to kill Florida's chances of securing up to $700 million in federal school reform money, the state's top education official said Wednesday.
Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith told the St. Petersburg Times editorial board that minimal union support could sink the state's application for Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion program at the heart of President Barack Obama's education agenda.
Federal approval hinges in part on support from school districts and teachers unions. But Andy Ford, president of the state teachers union, has encouraged local union presidents not to sign off on the state's application. And so far, many local leaders, including those around Tampa Bay, appear to be balking.
If they don't sign, "it sends a peculiar message," Smith said. "If I'm looking at 14 states that have submitted bold, robust plans, and four of them have good signoff by all the major leadership in the state, that sends a very clear message."
Race to the Top is highly competitive. But Florida is widely considered a leading contender because its education policies are closely in synch with the Obama administration's.
The state's plans for the money, crafted over months by the Florida Department of Education, are dramatic. They would accelerate changes on a suite of sensitive issues, including how teachers are trained, evaluated and paid.
The state wants district and union leaders to sign off on those plans by Tuesday. The Pinellas County School Board will vote on the issue today. The Hillsborough School Board will discuss it Tuesday.
Even if the board says yes, there will be time later to bail. If Florida wins the grant, participating districts will have 90 days to develop plans that meet state requirements — and additional time to work on things like new teacher evaluations.
By signing off "all we're saying is that we're willing to sit at the table, side by side, with our union and the board, to talk about the plan," Pinellas superintendent Julie Janssen said in a meeting with teachers Monday. "It doesn't say we're buying it."
Some school board members and union leaders are worried, though, that the state is asking for too much, too fast, and with too little money. Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties stand to collectively net up to $50 million over four years, assuming all 67 districts in the state participate.
They also say the state is leaving little room to craft programs that fit local needs.
"Other states aren't being so prescriptive," said Marshall Ogletree, executive director of the Pinellas teachers union.
"Our concern is that not through legislation, but through a memorandum of understanding, we're trying to change state law."
But Smith said local education leaders will have "huge latitude" to craft plans and phase them in.