Florida should be competing hard to win its share of the Obama administration's $4.35 billion education grant program called Race to the Top. But its chances diminish with every school district that declines to take part — and within each district if the superintendent, the school board and the teachers union don't all sign on.
The state's deadline for counties to reply is Tuesday. Pinellas has already agreed, though its union has not. The Hillsborough School Board, which has an impressive track record of reform including winning a $100 million Gates Foundation grant, will discuss it Tuesday. Hernando and Pasco school districts have also agreed.
It is important not to let this opportunity slip away. Education Commissioner Eric J. Smith estimates that Florida could receive up to $900 million to help launch major education reform. Specifically, the federal government requires applicants to detail plans for assessing students' performance; tracking student achievement over time; measuring and rewarding teacher and leadership quality; and fixing struggling schools.
Some fear things are moving too fast. But our students deserve better schools now, and failing to meet the deadline threatens Florida's competitiveness for the money. Districts and unions with questions would do better to agree now and, in good faith, work out their concerns in the months ahead as each district writes its own detailed plan.
A major sticking point seems to be performance pay for teachers — and that Race to the Top would emphasize tying teacher pay to students' achievement. Another worry is that the state, in its grant application, could be intruding on collective bargaining by dictating how teachers' pay is set.
Indeed, unions should protect the teacher rights they fought hard to win. But they should not protect incompetent teachers at the expense of students. And students should remain the focus.
The potential of Race to the Top would be a fundamental shift in student assessment that would help teachers do their jobs every day better than a once-a-year test such as the FCAT. Ideally, districts will develop real-time tools that teachers and their schools could use throughout the year to assess student progress, and adapt the teaching in response. Such a system would eventually make it possible to measure a teacher's success based on improvement in a given set of students. That would be progress.
Much of the battle over Race to the Top feels tied to the past and the distrust between the teachers unions and state officials due to the increased focus on the FCAT to assess public schools. That's understandable and to be expected. But it shouldn't stand in the way of progress and moving to a system that could ultimately help teachers do their jobs better and students learn more. Race to the Top can provide the funding to blaze that path. Florida should jump on it.