Education Commissioner Eyes Race to Top Fixes
Education Commissioner Eric Smith has until June 1 to revamp an application he once thought was sure to win Florida hundreds of millions of dollars in grant money from the federal Education Department’s “Race to the Top” competition.
But the fate of SB 6, which ties teacher salaries to student learning gains on standardized test, now looms as a critical factor in the state’s second run at what could prove as much as $700 million – a substantial injection of cash for a recession-strapped state budget.
The merit-pay legislation now is before Smith’s boss, Gov. Charlie Crist, who has been deluged with e-mails and phone calls from teachers, parents and others urging he veto the measure, approved in mostly party-line votes by the Republican-led Legislature. Crist has signaled he is strongly considering vetoing the measure.
Still, Smith told the News Service of Florida that he plans to resubmit most of the original application, which envisioned Florida enacting a broad merit pay system for teachers. In rejecting Florida’s initial application, federal education officials told Florida that “Race to the Top” program reviewers were concerned about the dearth of union support in Florida and lack of a mechanism to enforce the goals of the application.
Little seems to have changed since the first round of grants was awarded March 29, with Delaware and Tennessee the only winners. Several states which earlier applied have said they don’t plan to go through another round.
“Assuming that SB 6 gets signed into law, we will be able to reapply with a much stronger application,” Smith said.
Florida was once expected to be the big first place winner in the competition for a parcel of the $4.35 billion in federal education dollars. National experts widely expected the state's application for the federal dollars to be viewed favorably by the department. Smith even stood by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama when the competition was announced a year ago.
Instead, Florida finished fourth in the competition. Delaware and Tennessee were awarded $100 million and $500 million, respectively.
“It was very discouraging and disappointing that we didn't get in in the first round,” Smith said. “It cost our children $168 per student by losing the first round.”
Although the merit pay measure remains the elephant hovering over the application, Smith said he expects the seven school districts that did not endorse the “Race to the Top” application to sign onto the renewed bid by the June 1 deadline.
“We're going after it aggressively,” he said. “We intend to maintain the current focus of our grant. I think it was very clear with the grading that it was a well received application, there weren't glaring problems or deficiencies.”
The state’s largest teachers' union, the Florida Education Association, is spearheading the campaign urging the governor to reject the merit pay program, saying it is unfair to teachers and would drive the best and brightest away from schools.
Only five local unions endorsed the state's application in the first round and Smith is hoping for more support the second time around. He has invited FEA President Andy Ford, as well as Florida Association of District School Superintendents director Bill Montford and the Florida School Boards Association director Wayne Blanton to meet with him this week on the issue.
Mark Pudlow, a FEA spokesman, said the union will wait to see what happens with SB 6, since that will dictate the meeting’s direction. But Pudlow warned, it “doesn't seem like there's a whole lot of collaboration and cooperation” coming from Smith and Education Department officials.
“It's been the DOE presenting something and we're told that's what we're going to do,” he said.