Crist Stumping for Schools Money in D.C.
Around the State
The governor and a delegation of Florida educators hope that the everyone-on-board message puts them over the top in a stiff, 19-state competition for the windfall – part of the federal Race to the Top grant program. The Florida group made its pitch in a 90-minute meeting Wednesday with U.S. Department of Education officials in Washington.
Florida is vying for a share of $3.4 billion in remaining education-reform money, which would be used to improve the state’s chronically poor graduation rates, lift low-performing schools and develop performance-pay plans for teachers.
“I think the big difference is the level of support, and frankly that’s one of the first topics that we addressed,” the governor said. “Broad support by the Florida Education Association and the unions around the state is significantly higher than the first time around. That cooperation, that collaboration, bodes well.”
If Florida wins the grant, half will go to county school districts and half will stay in Tallahassee, at the Department of Education, to develop statewide initiatives.
Winners will be announced later this month or in early September.
The Race to the Top program is part of President Obama’s $800-billion-plus stimulus plan passed in 2009. The money is doled out to states that show plans to use data-driven approaches to improve teacher quality and turn around failing schools.
In the first round of federal awards, announced in March, only Delaware and Tennessee won grants. Florida was a finalist – and widely considered a front-runner – but finished fourth, out of the money.
Only five of Florida’s 67 local teacher unions supported that first bid. Fifty-eight of those locals now back the second, said Florida Education Association President Andy Ford, who was on hand at Wednesday’s meeting to support Florida's application.
Florida’s Race to the Top application includes a merit pay plan for teachers – a lightning rod in state politics. But the proposal wouldn’t judge teachers solely on student test scores. It allows districts to weigh other factors such as socioeconomic conditions and family problems that can hinder learning gains.
The Republican-run state Legislature caused a stir in the spring legislative session by passing SB 6, a bill to base teacher pay and job security mostly on student test scores, but Crist vetoed it.
“Every time (merit pay) comes up it’s controversial, but we’re getting closer,” said Ford. “If we can come up with a system that people believe in, the fear goes away.”
Crist said the lack of union support was the main factor in torpedoing Florida's first bid for funds. "When you come in fourth out of 50, that's pretty darn close. Just a little bit more effort should be enough to let Florida prevail."
The delegation presenting Florida’s case included Crist, Ford, Miami-Dade schools superintendent Alberto Carvalho and Education Commissioner Eric Smith. The president of the Miami-Dade teachers union, Karen Aronowitz, also traveled to Washington for the meeting.
The presence of Ford and other union leaders at Wednesday's meeting, the governor said, "makes a real statement."
Florida was one of six states to go before U.S. Department of Education officials Wednesday, along with Arizona, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Illinois. Each state made their presentations in private, closed-to-the-press meetings in hotel conference rooms. Only two governors made personal appeals, Crist and Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley.
The other 13 finalists made their pitches Tuesday.
Crist, a former Republican now running as a no-party candidate for U.S. Senate, wasn’t in the nation’s capital just for official business. He has a meeting this afternoon with the Teamsters union and a fund-raiser, thrown by Democrats, Wednesday night. The governor did not take the state jet on the trip because of the campaign events; he flew commercial.