It took two tries for Florida to qualify for the federal Race to the Top education initiative. Weeks from now, that may seem like the easiest part of all. Within the next 90 days, to meet the federal deadline, each participating district has to submit to the state its framework for spending its share of the $700 million. That will require unparalleled cooperation and compromise to ensure the money is targeted to where it will actually make an impact and not just be dribbled away.
Gov. Charlie Crist — and the educators, administrators and teacher union officials who flanked him — all pledged to do just that Wednesday when they gathered at Crist's alma mater, St. Petersburg High School, to celebrate. But those words must beget tough and quick action. Florida's Race to the Top application set state goals that by 2015 would:
• Cut the achievement gap between whites and minority groups by half in math and science.
• Beat the nation's top-performing states — Massachusetts and Connecticut — at the percentage of students testing at or above proficiency levels on National Assessment of Education Progress tests.
• Double the percentage of high school graduates who go on to earn at least a year's worth of college credit.
Hitting these ambitious targets will require a rifle shot, not a shotgun. Stretched equally statewide, the money would amount to less than $300 per student. But earmarked for specific programs to help the students who most need it, the sum is large enough to change classrooms — and students' lives. Florida's years of data-tracking show clearly which schools and students need the help.
Florida's winning application numbered 354 pages, but even that stack of paper left many important details to be decided in the weeks ahead. A key issue is tying teacher evaluations — and a chunk of their raises — primarily to student performance. Another is differential pay — giving teachers more money for, among other things, teaching in difficult school settings or at low-performing schools.
Half of the Race to the Top money will be spent at the state level across four years, and the rest goes to participating districts, an estimated $15.9 million in Pinellas and $26.6 million in Hillsborough over the life of the grant.
Florida's entire education community can be proud of working together to win a major Race to the Top grant. But in the weeks of difficult talks ahead, all parties must remember to concentrate that money where it can do the most good.