Miami Herald: Florida to seek $1 billion in U.S. education grants

Nov 19, 2009

Eligible for up to $700 million in competitive federal grants for education, Florida anticipates asking the federal government for even more than that.

Miami Herald–November 18, 2009

A couple hundred million ain’t bad, but why not go for a billion?

Florida Education Commissioner Eric Smith on Wednesday said it looks like the state could end up asking the federal government for $1 billion in grant money earmarked for education. “We are excited by what this means to the state, what it means to our children and what it means to our educators,” Smith said in a call with reporters.

That amount would be nearly a quarter of the entire budget for Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion initiative that seeks to solve some of the most persistent problems in education by pouring money into innovative reforms.

The state is in a category with three others, based on size, that are eligible to receive a sum between $350 million to $700 million. But federal officials have acknowledged those are just guidelines and states can ask for different amounts.

A mid-January deadline means state and district officials must fashion an application for the contest in “an extraordinarily short period of time” that includes the holiday season, Smith said.

“We have our work to do in the state of Florida now that in a sense educators and states have been asked to put forth a plan to solve these problems and to move us forward,” he said.

Race to the Top targets four areas for reform: standards and tests, effective educators, data systems and turnaround for struggling schools.

That means in order to have a chance, the state must consider a host of reforms, including linking teacher and principal evaluations and pay to student achievement. That’s no small feat — previous efforts to create merit pay based on test scores have been met with resistance statewide.


But union and district officials in South Florida say they are willing to work on a plan that meets everyone’s approval.

Leaders from United Teachers of Dade and the Miami-Dade school district are meeting Friday to start working on ideas, UTD President Karen Aronowitz said.

“We know when we work with each other, that has positive overtones,” she said. “It’s not being done to teachers; it has to be done with teachers.”

The Broward Teachers Union last month won a grant to develop a compensation plan that includes student test scores. BTU spokesman John Ristow said the union wants to make sure that academic gains are measured by more than a single test, taking into account criteria like attendance, report cards and students’ bodies of work.

Other reforms include:

• Working with a consortium of states on standards and tests that will allow comparison between states.

• Developing more rigorous certification exams for teachers.

• In low-achieving schools, lengthening the school day and school year; expanding full day pre-K, adding career academies in high schools, recruiting more promising teachers through outside partnerships and seeking more community support.

Not all states will even qualify for money, which will be doled out in two rounds.

If Florida receives anything, half will stay at the state level and the rest will be distributed among participating districts.

In order to get that money, school district superintendents, board chairs and union presidents must all sign off on an agreement by early January.

Miami-Dade and Broward schools officials said they are committed to being among the districts that sign on.


Broward Schools Superintendent Jim Notter said he expects the effort to be a challenge — but expects it to get done.

“They’re going to do it because ultimately it’s going to make the programs for students that much better,” he said. “One thing that you learn about Broward’s culture is that we will do almost anything, anywhere, at any time, as long as we can draw a direct benefit to our children.”

Smith said he cringes a little every time he hears someone say that Florida appears to be positioned well based on past work, because history is only a part of the criteria for the grant.

“The majority of this grant is what we intend to do in the future,” he said. “It is clear that they are looking for states that are willing to put forth bold statements, bold plans about how they intend to improve the quality of education.”

Still, he acknowledged: “I think we are positioned well.”