Education reforms first step in racePublished 2:22pm Thursday, January 7, 2010
By JESSICA SIEFF
It was back to business, albeit snowy business, Monday as students returned to their classrooms in Edwardsburg, which stayed open after a holiday weekend with plenty of snow shut down some districts in southwestern Michigan and northern Indiana.
It was a busy day for educators as Gov. Granholm signed “landmark” legislation in state education reforms, as just another step for Michigan to set its sights on the federal “Race to the Top” grant money – though many area superintendents have yet to show full support for a program they say still lacks in specifics.
“We are still in a holding pattern,” Sherman Ostrander, superintendent of Edwardsburg Public Schools, said Monday.
The state still needs signatures from district superintendents and teacher associations on a memorandum of understanding to better their chances at a piece of a $400 million pie that’s being offered by the Obama administration to schools nationwide.
“It’s my understanding that many districts are taking that memo of understanding under advisement,” Ostrander said.
What’s keeping them from signing on the dotted line? Many area superintendents, along with the backing of their boards, are holding off until they receive additional details regarding what kinds of mandates and stipulations could come along with whatever grant money may be awarded.
“My concern is that we’re not sure what we’re signing yet,” Ostrander said.
There’s the added concern of what it might ultimately cost to get a piece of that pie, a pie that might be pretty tempting to school districts already starving from severe budget cuts.
Edwardsburg could see around $70,000 in federal aid should Michigan be a recipient of those funds, an amount that Ostrander said could be considered “insignificant.”
“Not if it costs this district $150,000 to be in strict compliance,” with any mandates or regulations to accompany the money, he said.
Within the five-bill package the governor signed are reforms that would allow the state to step in when it comes to the lowest performing schools, require certification for administrators, annual evaluations for teachers and administration, new means of teacher certification, open the door to more charter schools and change the drop out age from 16 to 18, starting with students currently in the sixth grade.
For the most part, school officials are content with the reforms, however they remain concerned with what could come along through the Race to the Top program.
“For a superintendent, it’s kind of a concern,” Gregory Weatherspoon, superintendent for Cassopolis Public Schools, said Monday. “Is it elitism or is it an opportunity?”
Weatherspoon wonders just what the “top” is that schools will be racing toward and is worried about whether standards would be raised too high.
For some districts, that could mean more schools would be considered lower caliber. Some districts seem to see more in aid than others, Weatherspoon added, saying, “suburban schools tend to get more money than everyone else.
“If they get more of the money,” he said, “is it classism that we’re promoting?”
There’s also a lack in specifics when it comes to just how those evaluations will be held and what they will account for, for state teachers. Teachers, Weatherspoon said, who are already struggling with tighter financial restrictions after the state made steep budget cuts for educations and are “working with less, feeling they’ve already been ripped off,” he said.
Still, Weatherspoon said he did plan on signing the memorandum of understanding – superintendents for Edwardsburg, Brandywine and Niles Community Schools have yet to commit.
For his part, Weatherspoon stresses its not the idea of reform that he’s concerned with. “I think it’s thinking outside of the box,” he said. Alluding to discussions that many within the state’s educational system are having about how to move forward with the educating of Michigan’s students in the future, Weatherspoon said the changes “are probably the re-imagining of schools.
“Everything about education has been at a standstill,” he said.
Superintendents are asked to sign the memo by Jan. 7. As of press time, Weatherspoon said he was signing without an accompanied signature by his district’s teacher’s association.
The hope, in some cases, is for any aid at all. The added hope is that aid be made available – along with any mandates – that are ultimately in the best interest