More teachers’ unions throw support behind R.I.’s race to top

Seek $75m in US educational grants

By Michelle R. Smith
Associated Press / May 25, 2010

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PROVIDENCE — Several of Rhode Island’s teachers unions and school districts have signed on to the state’s application for $75 million in federal education grants, strengthening the state’s chances in the second round of the US Department of Education’s Race to the Top competition, Education Commissioner Deborah Gist said yesterday.

Still, the union support for the application is significantly lower in Rhode Island than it was in the two states that won grants in the first round, although Gist said she does not think it will hurt the state’s odds.

The application, which Gist plans to submit Thursday in Washington, is a second chance for Rhode Island to qualify for a share of $4.35 billion in federal education reform grants.

Rhode Island came in eighth among 41 states in the first round in March. Only Delaware and Tennessee were granted money in the first round.

Gist said Rhode Island learned from the examples set by those states, which she said had aggressive plans as well as strong support by school districts and teachers unions.

“We also now have strong stakeholder support,’’ she said.

Delaware had 100 percent union participation, and Tennessee had 93 percent, she said. In Rhode Island, 11 unions have signed on, representing districts with about 47 percent of the state’s students, Gist’s office said.

The remaining unions have until Tuesday to sign on.

Gist said the lower union participation rate in Rhode Island still is an improvement over the first round, when only two unions, in Foster and Providence, signed on.

Union participation should not pose a problem for the state because it is one of several aspects being considered by federal officials, Gist said.

“In this round, every point is going to count, so we’re very concerned and really wanted that sign-on,’’ she said. “Because we’ve had such broad stakeholder support and we could tell that story, we feel like we are really well-positioned.’’

Marcia Reback, president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, said a crucial factor in her union’s decision Wednesday to sign on was the agreement reached in Central Falls to hire back all the high school teachers fired as part of a turnaround plan.

She said the settlement changed the “tone and tenor’’ of the debate, and of the unions’ relationship with Gist.

Gist said she does not consider the Central Falls agreement to be connected to the application. But she knew it was an emotional issue that weighed heavily on the minds of teachers, and its resolution helped them feel they could be an active part of the process, she said.

“The major reason that the teachers unions are signed on this time is the way that we worked together and the quality of the application,’’ she said.

Gist said all but two school districts, Little Compton and Chariho, have signed on to the application.

Among the other changes made in the second-round application is a higher cap on charter schools in the state, from 20 to 35.

The General Assembly also is working on a school funding formula, something House Speaker Gordon Fox yesterday called one of his highest priorities. He expects it to pass within the next few weeks, he said.

Governor Don Carcieri said the application has been substantially strengthened but cautioned that competition still will be intense because other states also have been reworking their bids for the money.

“Everyone in the community at large is completely aligned,’’ he said. “Win or not, we’ve ramped up our focus, and this is going to go forward, regardless.’’

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