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Fla. schools lose out on federal funding

Florida education officials wanted more than $1 billion from the federal government to put a slew of education reforms in place.

Instead, at least for now, they’re getting zilch.

The U.S. Department of Education on Monday unveiled the first-round winners — Delaware and Tennessee — of Race to the Top, a $4.35 billion competitive grant program.

Florida placed fourth, but got no consolation prize. There was only the promise of another round and $3.4 billion more to be awarded later this year.

“Florida’s race is far from over,” said Education Commissioner Eric Smith in a statement. He said he was confident in the state’s chances for the next phase.

One of 16 finalists, Florida had been seen as a front-runner by many education policy groups but struggled to muster support from unions.

Only five local district unions signed, with the state’s largest teachers union also opposed to the application.

“The application does not address how the state will move forward assertively to generate union buy in,” an application reviewer wrote.

The Broward school district, the state’s second-largest, also declined to participate.

States were awarded points for district and union support. Both winners had backing from unions and every school district.

In a statement, Florida Education Association President Andy Ford called for more collaboration in the second phase of the grant.

“It’s unfortunate, but understandable,” Ford said. “But the good news is that Florida will get a second chance to get it right.”

Unions balked at the competition’s emphasis on linking teacher and principal pay to student performance. Those changes could be coming to Florida schools anyway if a controversial teacher pay bill becomes law this session in Tallahassee.

In addition to educator effectiveness, the contest is meant to reward states that create common standards; find innovative ways to turn around low-performing schools; provide successful conditions for high-performing charter schools and use data to track student growth.

Applications for round two are due June 1. Unlike the first round, states must limit their request to the budget range given by the U.S. Department of Education. Florida can ask for $350-$700 million.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the next round could have as many as 10-15 winners. High-scoring states in the first phase “don’t have a leg up for the second round,” he said.

Broward Schools Superintendent Jim Notter said it was disappointing that the state didn’t win any money — even though Broward opted not to participate. He said he thought the lack of union support played a bigger part than the few districts that didn’t sign on.

Notter said he expects state education officials to meet with the Broward School Board to discuss the next move.

“It’s a new ballgame,” he said.

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