Sunday, January 17, 2010

Race to the Top (Closer)

Michigan shirks 

Efforts to derail application for federal school stimulus cash reflect the state’s dysfunction

ichigan’s dysfunction is perfectly embodied in the ridiculous struggle to put together an application for $400 million in fed eral education funds — its stubborn refusal to embrace reform as a path out of its misery, its fealty to labor at the expense of sound policy,
 and its irrational fear of change.

The Race to the Top application, due Tues day, should have been signed, sealed and on its way to delivery to the White House by now. The program is President Barack Obama’s effort to improve academic performance, largely by improving the quality of classroom instruction.

To be eligible, Michigan had to agree to a series of measures to better assess the job performance of teachers, hold them account able for how well students learn and provide innovative alternatives to traditional public schooling.

As you can imagine, the Michigan Education Associ ation, the state’s largest teacher and school employee union, wanted no part of these reforms.

Even with the support of Gov. Jennifer Granholm and key legislative leaders, the Race to the Top bill faced an uphill fight in the Legislature before a watered-down version was finally adopted the weekend before Christmas.

Having lost in Lansing, MEA President Iris Salters and her staff took the fight to local districts, urging school boards and local unions not to sign on to the application. Eight Oakland County districts dropped out of the program, saying the benefits weren’t worth subjecting teachers to the more rigorous accountability.

What those districts ignore is that half the federal money will go to statewide programs, freeing up cash in the general School Aid Fund and mitigating the per-pupil cuts need ed
 to balance the state budget. All districts will benefit.

Now there are even defections on the State Board of Education, led by board President Kathleen Straus, the MEA’s de facto repre sentative
 on that body. If state Superintendent of Public Instruc tion Mike Flanagan is able to get a competitive package in the mail on Tuesday, it will be a miracle.

Michigan is again shooting itself in the foot. The reforms passed by the Legislature are in place and will be put into effect even if the Race to the Top funds don’t come.

Additional changes tied to Race to the Top will likely be included in the rewrite of the federal No Child Left Behind law, particularly now that the American Federation of Teachers has signed off on the reforms.

The change is coming. Michigan might as well get the money.

Everyone should be mindful of the steep budget cliff the state faces in 2011, when the federal stimulus dollars run out. School dis tricts face cutting an additional $400 to $500 per pupil because of declining state aid pay ments.

It’s insane not to aggressively pursue the aptly named Race to the Top dollars. This is a race — a race tomake education in this coun try the best in the world. Michigan, a state with such a high level of need, should be sprinting at the head of the pack instead of shirking along at the rear.

Hopefully, all parties with a stake in this application will wake up Monday morning and do whatever it takes to give Flanagan the makings of a great application.


Race for more stimulus cash on to next step

Kathleen Straus, presi dent of the State Board of Education, signed on Saturday
 Michigan’s application to receive up to $400 million in additional federal stimulus funds.

Her sig nature
 put the final stamp on the state’s quest to be selected by the U.S. Department of Education to receive the money through Race to the Top, a program that will award, on a compet itive basis, $4.35 billion to states to support school reform. Straus’ signature, along with those of Gov.

Jennifer Granholm and state schools Superin tendent Mike Flanagan, was required on the ap plication.

The deadline to submit the application is Tues day. Straus had declined to sign the application, saying she wanted time to read the full application, which details Michigan’s plans for spending the money. Only a summary of the plan was available at the time. Straus re ceived the application Friday.

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