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State trying again for $250m US education grant

Standards cited as crucial issue

By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / May 31, 2010

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Massachusetts is taking another shot at getting millions of federal dollars to create new programs and overhaul failing schools.

A revised application for a $250 million federal education grant was filed Saturday and education secretary Paul Reville said he is confident about the state’s chances for getting a grant.

But it is unclear whether the changes will please the Obama administration, whose rejection of the original application sent shock waves through the state.

The new proposal, which the US Department of Education should receive by tomorrow’s deadline, attempts to remedy shortcomings in the state’s original application for the Race to the Top competition.

A federal review panel at that time raised doubts about the state’s commitment to two key priorities of the administration: Adopting national academic standards and tying teacher evaluations to student test scores.

Working through both issues proved contentious at times. While Massachusetts has taken steps to firm up those areas in its application, state education leaders have not thrown unconditional support behind them. They are promising a decision on the national standards later this summer and have pledged to create a task force that will recommend changes to teacher evaluations, including ways to use student test scores in assessing teacher performance.

Mitchell Chester, the state’s commissioner of elementary and secondary education, voiced guarded optimism Friday that Massachusetts would prevail in the second round of the competition, which aims to reward states that aggressively pursue new and innovative programs and overhaul failing schools.

“I think we have a competitive application,’’ Chester said. “I think we have a strong case to make here, but I don’t think it’s a guarantee.’’

Between 10 and 15 states could secure funding in the second round, which bodes well for Massachusetts. The state ranked 13th in the first round in late March, when the US Education Department selected only Delaware and Tennessee, leaving more than $3 billion left in the fund.

The first-round setback for Massachusetts was a blow to a state long regarded as having one of the most rigorous academic standards in the country, and which President Obama has held up as a model of educational excellence.

The defeat came two months after Massachusetts, with much fanfare, enacted a new law that gave superintendents and the commissioner greater powers to overhaul failing schools and allowed the doubling of charter school seats in the lowest-performing districts. Another goal of the law was to improve the state’s chances of winning Race to the Top.

In the new application, state education leaders say they have more carefully detailed how the new law should foster dramatic changes in Massachusetts schools. They said they were unable to do that with precision the last time, because the Legislature passed the bill just days before the application was due in Washington.

“There’s much greater focus on the impact of the legislation,’’ said Elizabeth Pauley, who as a senior program officer at the Boston Foundation, a charitable organization that supports charter schools, has been monitoring the changes in the application. “Frankly, I thought we would win the first time.’’

Over the last two months, state education officials consulted with a broad group of stakeholders, including teachers, administrators, and business leaders, responding to criticism that development of the previous proposal occurred largely behind closed doors.

But the state has experienced some erosion in support. Conservative-leaning organizations have intensified efforts to build public opposition to adopting national standards, arguing the grade-by-grade learning expectations in many cases are lower than those in Massachusetts.

State education leaders have vowed they will not adopt the national standards if they are inferior — a decision that will be made by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education this summer.

Union support also has been mixed. The American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, the state’s second largest teachers’ union, which represents Boston and some other urban districts, yanked its support last month. Union officials said Race to the Top is fostering a blame-the-teacher environment by encouraging states to adopt such proposals as firing at least half the teachers at underperforming schools.

They also oppose, among other factors, the competition’s push for national academic standards.

“Our standards in Massachusetts are clearly higher than what federal government is proposing,’’ said Thomas Gosnell, the federation’s president. “Our students are number one in the nation and the Western world, and here we are being asked to sign onto those [national] standards.’’

But the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, is supporting the state’s application, after its board endorsed the proposal in a 31-19 vote earlier this month.

While the association is opposed to the use of student test scores to evaluate teacher performance, it appreciates that the state is working in partnership with teachers in overhauling the evaluation system. The group also likes the emphasis the application places on ensuring that students are ready to learn when in school by addressing socioeconomic issues, such as proper nutrition and medical care, and encouraging greater parent participation.

“I would say in the final analysis, we decided to sign on because the potential benefits outweigh the potential risks,’’ said Anne Wass, the association’s president.

Reville, the state’s education secretary, said he feels good about the state’s chances of winning a federal grant this time.

“We trust they will recognize us as the national leader we have always been in this work,’’ he said.

What is Race to the Top?
A $4.35 billion fund the Obama administration is allocating to states deemed to be undertaking ambitious overhaul plans for K-12 schools and expansion of charter schools. Delaware and Tennessee won the first and second grants, respectively, in March. Massachusetts ranked 13th out of 16 finalists, behind Georgia, Kentucky, and Louisiana, but ahead of Colorado, New York, and Washington, D.C.

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