What are schools ‘racing’ for?Published 1:20am Saturday, December 19, 2009
By JESSICA SIEFF
Niles Daily Star
With $400 million of federal grant money being waved in the face of state legislators – and their respective school districts – the Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” fund is turning out to be a tense competition for federal dollars for education.
The funds are limited. The need is great. The chances are improved by a show of support from state school districts.
Those states taking part in the race must submit an application that Superintendent of the Berrien Regional Education Service Agency (RESA) Jeff Siegel called “fairly complex.” Part of that application includes signed memorandums of understanding by district boards of education, school officials and teacher associations.
Michigan’s chances are in jeopardy and legislators are facing resistance from district leaders.
“The biggest issue is this application, and the memo of understanding,” Siegel said. “If you don’t sign the memo of understanding, you won’t be able to receive any funds from the grant. And if you do sign it, you don’t know what you’re signing.”
Distribution is up for grabs and to increase their chances those states vying for funding, including Michigan, need to show they have the support of their school districts.
Support they don’t have just yet.
School officials, superintendents, boards of education and teacher associations – are being asked to sign and submit the memo to the state by Jan. 7.
A memo regarding the process and any stipulations, restrictions, guidelines or circumstances that may or may not accompany any funds awarded.
If it sounds vague, it is.
Currently, no details exist – leaving school officials hesitant to sign on the dotted line to a relatively blank document.
A Webinar held Thursday in Grand Rapids and shared with many who gathered at the Berrien Regional Education Service Agency (Berrien RESA) in Berrien Springs was intended to give district leaders more information regarding Michigan’s attempt to win grant funds.
But many questions remain, little information was given – and whether or not they choose to sign the memo, it seems districts will have to abide by any new guidelines and regulations put forth by state lawmakers whether or not they receive any federal dollars.
Niles Community Schools Superintendent Doug Law was in Grand Rapids Thursday and left for Lansing immediately following the Webinar in search of more information from state lawmakers.
“It’s very scary,” Law said.
In principle and in general, he said, districts could very well support the package of bills that will affect educators and teacher assessments – but with no information before them just yet, “the devil is in the details.”
“We certainly would like the money,” John Jarpe, superintendent for the Brandywine Community Schools district, said. “Our board is on board with it in terms of recommending we do participate.” However, Jarpe said he is holding off on signing the memo as well.
Some criticism has come down on the grant program as opening the door to losing local control of school districts, of changing the way school performance and teacher performance is gauged.
“You may not be losing control to the federal government, we’re losing control at the state level,” Siegel said.
It’s the silent reform, educational reform sitting in the shadow of the headline grabbing health care reform.
The State of Michigan, Siegel said, “is trying to create rules and regulations that will align to these federal ideas of reform.”
That may not necessarily a bad thing, though Seigel added that boards of education are elected in districts across the state for a reason, to deal with and manage the specific needs of each area, needs that are not always shared and might result in challenges if the state tries to streamline performance assessments. Each of the superintendents agreed new rules may not turn out to be bad – the problem is, nobody knows for sure.