State approves 65 school improvement grants

Associated PressNovember 25, 2010 

TALLAHASSEE -- State officials have approved applications submitted by 62 of Florida’s 67 school districts and three laboratory schools for shares of Florida’s $700 million federal “Race to the Top” education grant.

The applications were forwarded Monday to the U.S. Department of Education for approval.

They include strategies for developing teacher merit pay plans linked to student performance and other steps for improving local schools.

Each participating district or school must work with its local union to draw up a teacher evaluation system by May for use in its pay plan, Florida Public Schools Chancellor Francis Haithcock said Wednesday.

Half of each teacher’s evaluation will be based on improved student achievement over a three-year period as measured by the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and other exams.

Districts have relatively little flexibility for that part of their evaluation systems, but have more leeway in developing the other half, such as deciding whether to include surveys of students and parents.

The second half must include state-developed teacher observation criteria but districts can decide how to implement it.

“They will make decisions about how many evaluations they have to have over the minimum,” Haithcock said. “They will make decisions about who will do those evaluations, whether they are principals and peers or a team of people that comes in.”

About half of Florida’s four-year grant, which will be paid for with federal stimulus funds, will go to the school districts and laboratory schools while the state will spend the rest.

Five of the 65 applications received conditional approval. Collier, Miami-Dade, Gadsden and Hardee county school districts and Florida A&M University’s laboratory school will have until June 30 to correct problems with their applications.

Three eligible districts -- Dixie, Hamilton and Suwannee counties -- and the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind won’t share in the funding because they failed to submit applications. They join two school districts in Baker and Palm Beach counties that chose not to participate when the state submitted its grant application earlier this year.

The other school districts -- as well as laboratory schools at Florida Atlantic University and the University of Florida -- received unconditional approval from the state Department of Education.

Florida was a finalist but failed to win a grant in the first round of the Race to the Top competition. Only Delaware and Tennessee were awarded grants. Florida, though, was among nine more states that received grants during the second round in August.

Florida’s first application lacked broad consensus. Local teachers unions in only five districts endorsed it. Gov. Charlie Crist then put together a group of union and local and state education officials to revise the application and it received nearly unanimous support from districts and unions.

One critical difference is the new application gives the districts and unions more flexibility in designing local merit pay and teacher evaluation plans.

Crist also vetoed a bill (SB 6) that would have forced a test-based merit pay plan on teachers and school districts while eliminating tenure for new hires. The bill drew strong opposition from teachers and local school officials. Crist will be succeeded in January by Republican Rick Scott, who was elected in November.

Scott has been critical of the stimulus program and one of his first tasks will be to fill three vacancies on the seven-member State Board of Education. He has not commented specifically on Race to the Top but does support teacher merit pay.

Haithcock said she hopes any similar measure emerging from next year’s legislative session aligns with the new Race to the Top plan instead of taking off in another direction.

“We are on a completely different plateau,” Haithcock said, noting the broad support for the new plan compared to when state lawmakers plowed ahead with a strong bill early this year.

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