Local schools cautious about Race to the Top
The federal "Race to the Top" program is prompting local school districts to decide whether they want to take part in the plan, or not. Kyle Geissler reports. You can read more in Monday's Janesville Gazette.
Participating LEA Memorandum of Understanding [PDF] Note: an an LEA is a Local Education Agency, usually a school district
JANESVILLE School districts across southern Wisconsin are saying “yes” now but may say “no” later to a federal education-reform plan called Race to the Top.
School districts across the state must decide by Wednesday whether they want to join the state in applying for a share of the $4.35 billion the federal government will distribute to a limited number of states.
Many school superintendents contacted Friday said they are signing a memorandum of understanding with the state, but they might withdraw from the program later.
The problem is that the state Department of Public Instruction is still creating its application to the federal government and can’t answer every question about how the program would work.
“This is a plane that’s being built as they’re flying it. This is a work in progress,” Edgerton School District Superintendent Norm Fjelstad said.
Race to the Top would require schools to sign on to a long list of reform measures. The measures are aimed at raising student achievement. Each district would receive funding, but whether it would be enough to pay for all the requirements is a key question superintendents are asking.
“We’re embracing the concept of it,” said Milton Superintendent Bernie Nikolay. “We like many of the initiatives in the grant. We do some of them already. Where we’re being careful is financially, whether it makes sense for us.”
Janesville Superintendent Karen Schulte agreed and said she wonders whether Race to the Top would leave districts with an unfunded program after the federal grants run out after two years.
Nevertheless, Schulte likes Race to the Top’s focus on improving schools.
“I think it supports our board’s goals and probably the goals of most school districts, and that is raising student achievement,” Schulte said. “We’re all trying to do that, anyway, and I think this will give us an added ability to do what we’ve already started to do.”
The program calls for a data-based system to evaluate teachers and principals, for example. The Janesville district already has started putting such a system in place with the help and ideas of businessman/philanthropist Quint Studer.
Most districts contacted Friday said they have already signed a memo of understanding with the state.
In districts such as Janesville and Milton, superintendents and school board presidents signed the memo, but they’re asking the full school boards to endorse the application at board meetings this week.
The memos need only one signature, but it has room for three—superintendent, board president and president of the teachers union.
Dave Parr, president of the Janesville Education Association, said he didn’t sign it, although he might do so later.
Parr, too, cited a lack of information.
“Until they give us some details, I’m not going to sign a blank check,” Parr said.
In a letter to Schulte, Parr stressed the possible changes to the teachers contract that could be required under Race to the Top. Parr wrote that any contract changes should be subject to ratification by the teachers.
One part of the program that would require a contract change is new a teacher-evaluation system that includes use of “data on student growth as a significant factor.” Many teachers question systems that judge their performance based on student test scores without taking into account things such as poverty and the support students get at home.
Like Parr, the Wisconsin Education Association Council is waiting to learn more before endorsing Race to the Top, a WEAC spokeswoman said.
While the district could change its mind later, it’s not clear the union could withdraw its endorsement, Parr said.
Parr said the goal of improving student achievement is laudable.
“I’m absolutely for the reform ideas, but the devil’s in the details.” Parr said.
Superintendents had similar concerns.
“Some of that stuff in that memorandum is pretty vague. They haven’t clarified all the details, so we haven’t made a firm commitment one way or the other,” said Brodhead Superintendent Charles Deery.
Even so, Deery has sent the application to the Department of Public Instruction, just in case.
“If we don’t sign it, we don’t even get to play later, and I think that’s a mistake,” Edgerton’s Fjelstad said.
But Fjelstad said he’s ready to just say no if he finds the conditions too burdensome.
Janesville would receive “base funding” of $1.03 million. Smaller districts would receive much less. Additional “discretionary funding” may be awarded to some districts. And if not all districts participate, the additional money would flow to the participating districts.
The Orfordville Parkview district would receive about $62,000 in base funding, which is not enough for two program requirements: to hire a mentor for teachers in reading and math and to set up a Project Lead the Way program to encourage students in science, technology, engineering and math, Parkview Superintendent Steve Lutzke said.
Even so, “I’d rather sign it and back out later rather than not sign it and then later find out it’s too late,” Lutzke said.
Superintendents said Race to the Top contains good ideas for improving schools, but they need to know more.
“These are good things. It just depends on how they want to do it,” Fjelstad said. “If we have to hire two administrative assistants to keep track of the data, then there goes part of the grant.”
In the end, the federal government might not even choose Wisconsin as one of the states to undertake Race to the Top, especially if the feds see the reaction in the Badger State as too negative.
“That’s why I think it’s important for school districts to cooperate and at least get our foot in the door,” Fjelstad said.