On your mark.
In the great Race to the Top in education, Collier County will be a scratch.
Superintendent Dennis Thompson has made an executive decision not to pursue the federal Race to the Top plan and the money that could flow from it.
Doing so would likely yield a relatively small infusion of cash and subject the district to too much federal control in return, Thompson estimates.
Race to the Top is the Obama administration’s successor to the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind initiative for schools. Nationally, more than $4 billion is available to states that fulfill the obligations outlined in the plan. Florida’s share could be $350 million or more.
It is not surprising to Thompson that the new president would come up with a plan for education. What is surprising to him, is that it is so similar to what Bush espoused.
Key components of Race to the Top include merit pay for teachers and an emphasis on creating more charter schools, both concepts Democrats have traditionally opposed. “How did the conservative agenda of 10 years ago become the liberal agenda of today?” Thompson asked.
Thompson finds plenty to like in the Race to the Top literature. But the useful ideas, things like aligning schedules to allow uniform planning time for teachers, can be done without buying into the entire program. One component of Race to the Top will offer grants to improve instructional technology. Thompson says Collier probably will pursue that money, but the details won’t be available to schools until spring.
In the meantime, parts of Race to the Top that have been revealed don’t appeal to the superintendent, who says he has briefed School Board members individually and gotten their approval for his decision to sit this one out.
One aspect of Race to the Top that troubles Thompson is the change it would require in teacher contracts.
Measures of teacher effectiveness would have to be agreed to by the union as part of a merit pay plan. Race to the Top deadlines only allow 90 days for that new contract to be signed. Thompson isn’t willing to invite that sort of acrimonious debate into the system, especially since he isn’t sure what would qualify as an acceptable merit pay system.
Race to the Top keeps many of the same goals laid out by No Child Left Behind. One such goal says that schools accepting the federal cash must have 100 percent of students meeting certain academic standards by 2014 or be labeled a low-performing school. Once labeled a low-performing school, federal mandates requiring principals and 50 percent of teachers to lose their jobs would kick in. Given the number of non-English speaking students in Collier County, the 100 percent proficiency standard is unrealistic, Thompson said.
Joining the Race to the Top would guarantee massive staff shake-ups districtwide, Thompson said. “Virtually every school in the state will be a low performing school,” he said.
Thompson isn’t alone in sitting out the Race to the Top. This week, Pasco County teachers told school board members there they would not renegotiate their contracts to comply with Race to the Top requirements. Teachers in Broward and Dade counties are also reportedly reluctant to go along. “I’ll be surprised to see what districts get cooperation from their unions on this. If I were a union leader, I certainly wouldn’t,” Thompson said.
That’s coming from a superintendent who isn’t often considered an ally of the union.
In fact, Thompson argues that the best way to improve education would be to get rid of the tenure system that allows ineffective teachers to stay on the job for life. While Race to the Top says districts should make teacher effectiveness the top priority when reducing staff, it doesn’t change the cumbersome process that must be used to prove the ineffectiveness of a tenured teacher.
With an annual budget of $962 million, Thompson says the less than $4 million dollars a Race to the Top grant might bring Collier County just isn’t worth it.
“We’re not going to waste our effort and inflame our work force,” he said.