Miami Herald: Support sought for Florida’s federal grant application

Jan 5, 2010

The Miami Herald published this article on January 5, 2010.


Calling it “foolish” and “short-sighted” to pass up, Florida’s education commissioner said Monday that the state would seek hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grant money with or without union support.

Speaking to The Miami Herald’s editorial board, Eric Smith said he is optimistic that Florida will submit a strong application by the Jan. 19 deadline for a piece of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top contest funds.

Florida is one of four states that could qualify for a range of $350 million to $700 million, though Smith said he is asking for about $800 million. The competition seeks reforms in four areas:

  • Standards and assessments.
  • Educator effectiveness.
  • Educational data systems.
  • Turnaround for low-performing schools.

To make their positions stronger, states are trying to show they have all parties on board: superintendents, board chairs and union leaders from each district. Smith said it’s not essential that all three sign off on a memorandum of understanding, though that could hurt the state’s bid.

So far, the state’s proposal has met with resistance from state and local unions, which have complained the application demands too much for too little reward.

The Florida Education Association has recommended that unions decline to sign off on it.

“It’s far too much work to do between now and the beginning of next school year,” said FEA President Andy Ford. “The amount of money divided between 67 school districts is not enough to implement this and implement it well.”

South Florida union leaders have said they will not sign the agreement.

“What the state is requiring, it’s unsustainable,” said United Teachers of Dade President Karen Aronowitz. “It is something that would overturn many of the agreements that we’ve worked out with our board.”

The Broward Teachers Union, which is still in negotiations over a contract for this year, has other issues as well.

“It’s difficult to work in a collaborative fashion when you have an adversarial school administration,” said BTU President Pat Santeramo.

Smith said he plans to spend the next couple of weeks gathering support statewide for Florida’s application.

“This is an opportunity not only for additional revenue without the need to raise taxes, but it’s also an opportunity to continue our reform efforts here in Florida,” Smith said. “What’s called for is people at the local level to sit down and be willing to talk about it.”

He called on those who are reluctant to “see if we can’t, as leaders and adults, figure this out.”

Even if unions don’t sign on now, they can work with districts to hammer out agreements for an August deadline.

While sharing some of the union’s concerns about whether the reforms are sustainable, local superintendents said they are on board.

“I’m going after it. I’m not backing down,” said Broward Superintendent Jim Notter. “It’s new money and it’s for the right reason.”

Broward School Board Chairwoman Jennifer Gottlieb said state and federal officials are pushing the reforms anyway, so the district might as well use the federal money to put them in place.

“I think we need every bit of assistance we can get,” she said.

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who has supported the initiative since it was introduced, raised concerns with several of the state’s provisions.

But he said the district has had a number of productive conversations with both the union and the state.

“This is a significant opportunity that if leveraged appropriately will elevate student achievement and improve teacher and administrator quality,” Carvalho said.

He added: “When the time is upon us, we may very well be sending an application with supportive signatures from all stakeholder groups.”

Miami Herald staff writer Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report.