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Florida Enters Second Leg of "Race to the Top"

By Lynn Hatter

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-903644.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – Florida's "Race to the Top" bid to compete with a long list contenders for federal education dollars has been fraught with conflict from the beginning. The teacher's union and Department of Education have clashed on issues like teacher tenure and merit pay. Florida lost out in the first round of grant awards, and during the 2010 legislative session, lawmakers tried to force a bill through that would have made it easier to fire teachers. But after months of back-and-forth, it seems there is finally a finish line in sight.

The education standoff ended with a breakthrough at the end of session. Governor Charlie Crist created a Race to the Top task force and brought together the Department of Education, school boards, superintendents, teachers and their unions, lawmakers and the business community. They held an eleven-hour marathon meeting and finally reached a consensus. Florida Stimulus Czar Don Winstead moderated that meeting.

"All the people at this table care deeply about the education of Florida's children. They may have different ideas on the best thing to do on that specific thing or this specific thing, but they all have a deep commitment. That's why this is such a passionate issue for many of them is because it all comes out of deep caring."

Florida Education Association Spokesman Mark Pudlow said the meeting prompted the teachers union to drop its opposition to the proposal.

"We're telling our locals, of course, that it's their decision. If they have a good working relationship and trust with their local district, then they should go ahead and try to obtain the grant. I think that this increased cooperation means there will be a few more points this go around and perhaps we'll be able to land some of the federal grant money."

Also during that meeting, several changes were made to the grant application. Department of Education Commissioner Eric Smith presented them to the Board of Education for review.

"My view is that they left in good shape. This is a good, strong Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that left Florida going forward in a very aggressive fashion with reform, and to Andy Ford's credit and the Florida Education Association, they were contributing parties to this discussion and were helpful in getting us to a final conclusion that was unanimously agreed to by the work group."

Instead of asking for a billion dollars, the state is now requesting about $600-million. Local school boards can pick and choose how they want to implement many of the reform plans in the application.

"They might choose bonus pay for teachers who work in struggling schools or low income schools, so they might phase in how they implement. But the requirement of the MOU is any district that signs up will have full district-wide implementation by the end of the grant. At the end they will be fully implemented in terms of teacher evaluations and these kind of things."

Those teacher evaluation provisions have also changed. Instead of tying fifty-percent of a teacher's pay to student test scores, that number has been reduced to 35-percent. The FEA's Pudlow says that is similar to the provisions outlined by Delaware and Tennessee, which received money in round one.

"There is less of a dependence on standardized test scores judging teacher's value, but it's still there. It just gives local districts more leeway in deciding, as far as teacher evaluations are concerned, more than just a standardized test taken in one day."

The question remains whether the changes made will be enough to get all local unions, school boards and superintendents to sign on to the proposal. The first time around, seven counties stayed out all together and only a handful of unions signed on. Now, that may be changing. Pinellas and Miami-Dade's unions have added their signatures to the revised application. Broward and Lee County, two of the seven that didn't sign the first time, have indicated they are now backing the proposal. All signatures are due to the Florida Department of Education Tuesday, and the application itself is due in Washington by June first.