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Not all districts
"Race to the Top"

One-third of Massachusetts school districts opted out of the federal initiative – and forfeited the money that comes with it

BY: Michael Jonas

State officials and school district leaders across Massachusetts are eagerly anticipating an infusion of $250 million in education funding over the next four years from the federal Race to the Top program.

But there is no joy in Milford. The town’s school district, which was in line to receive at least $265,000, is one of more than 100 statewide missing out on the money at a time when cash-strapped school systems are desperate for ways to fill budget gaps.

Massachusetts was one of 11 states plus the District of Columbia to win the competitive funding, which is designed to promote statewide education reform efforts.  States vying for a share of the $4.3 billion fund had to pledge to pursue reforms in four key areas: adopting standards and assessments aimed at increasing student success in college and the workplace; recruiting and rewarding effective teachers; building state data systems to measure student growth; and turning around the state’s lowest performing schools.

Districts had to secure the support of the superintendent, the school committee, and the local teachers union in order to participate and be eligible for the federal funding.  In Milford, as with many of the districts that opted out of the effort, union opposition was the stumbling block.

“I do feel we missed out on an opportunity for the district,” says Milford school Superintendent Robert Tremblay, who supported the district's bid to take part, along with the town's school committee. 

Tremblay says leaders of the Milford Teacher’s Association never publicly explained their decision not to sign on, but he thinks it hinged on concerns about teacher evaluations. “It’s just my sense that one of the real drivers for them was the linking of student achievement data to the suggestion a teacher was not performing,” says Tremblay. Race to the Top guidelines say teacher evaluations must be revamped so that measures of student achievement are “a significant factor” in teacher reviews. 

The president of the Milford Teacher’s Association, William Gary, did not return several phone messages.  

The state’s main teachers unions, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, endorsed the proposal, but it was left up to its local affiliate unions whether to support applications from their districts.  In the 22 districts where unions are affiliated with smaller American Federation of Teachers, whose Massachusetts chapter did not back the state proposal, state officials only required the support of the superintendent and school committee to participate.

Half of the $250 million awarded to the state will go directly to school districts based on their annual Title I funding, federal education aid that is tied to a district's population of students from low-income households.

Milford officials had been operating under the assumption that they were in line to receive $265,000 over four years.  But the actual amount could have been much higher, perhaps even double that figure.  That’s because the initial calculations made by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education were based on the full participation of all 393 districts in the state.  With about one-third of districts opting out, the 257 participating districts will get bigger pieces of the funding pie.

Many of the districts not taking part stood to collect much smaller allocations, some as little $5,000 or $10,000 over four years; some districts would have received no money at all. But there were also a handful of communities that forfeited substantially much more money than Milford.

Quincy was slated to receive the largest allocation of any district not taking part in Race to the Top.  The 9,000-student district was poised to receive $1.1 million based on the initial state calculations. The superintendent and school committee were eager to participate, but they could not garner the support of the local teachers union.  “In this kind of climate, you’re obviously looking for any and all avenues to inject some revenue into the school system,” says Chris Walker, policy director to Mayor Thomas Koch, who also serves as chairman of the city's school committee.

Walker was muted in his criticism of the union, however, noting that Quincy teachers agreed recently to move their health insurance coverage to the state's Group Insurance Commission, a decision that cut the city's health care costs by $6 million and saved an additional $4 million in premium increases that were looming for the next year.

Alison Cox, president of the Quincy teachers union, did not return phone messages.

Taunton, which would have received $877,000, was slated for the second largest  allocation among districts not participating in Race to the Top.

In addition to the funding they'll receive, participating districts will be part of deliberations with state officials to shape policies and programs addressing the four major Race to the Top goals.

“I had certainly wanted to see all our districts participate,” says Mitchell Chester, the state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, who adds that teacher evaluation “clearly is the major concern on the teachers’ part.”

Tying teacher evaluations to the performance of their students is a controversial issue, with union leaders and other critics arguing that such measurements are not necessarily a reliable gauge of teacher effectiveness.

But union locals will not be able to avoid the issue simply by blocking their districts’ involvement in Race to the Top. A state education department task force has been meeting, independent of the federal initiative, to propose new state education regulations that will require a similar revamping of evaluation procedures statewide. The 41-member task force, which includes the president of the American Federal of Teachers Massachusetts chapter, is expected to recommend new teacher evaluation regulations to the state Board of Education early next year.

While those districts taking part in Race to the Top will be expected to have new teacher evaluation systems in place for the 2012-2013 school year, Chester anticipates that new regulations will mandate that all districts in the state conform to new evaluation procedures for the following school year.

“I think it’s really important that student performance be factored into teacher evaluations,” says Chester.  “The way I’ve messaged it to districts is, would you rather wait and let others decide what the parameters for the new process will be or would you rather be participating in the discussions.  Unfortunately, about a third of the districts would prefer to wait and have those parameters handed to them.”

Do you think teachers unions were right to forego federal Race to the Top funds because of their teacher evaluation provisions?

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