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Mass. wins $250m for schools

‘We came up with these ideas for the children,’ said Governor Deval Patrick yesterday at the State House. ‘We owe it to them.’ ‘We came up with these ideas for the children,’ said Governor Deval Patrick yesterday at the State House. ‘We owe it to them.’
By James Vaznis and Michael Levenson
Globe Staff / August 25, 2010

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The Obama administration yesterday awarded Massachusetts $250 million in a national education competition, a victory for the state that reaffirms its reputation as a national education leader and injects desperately needed money into struggling school systems.

Massachusetts, which received the highest score in the competition, will use the windfall to overhaul failing schools, revamp training for educators, and find new ways to accelerate student achievement. The money will also help schools enact new national standards for teaching English and math at every grade level.

Half of the $250 million will go to school districts, based on their number of low-income students, starting in October. The rest will be spent on statewide efforts.

Massachusetts was among nine states and the District of Columbia to prevail in the second round of the Race to the Top competition, sharing in $3.3 billion. The award amounts, based on student population, ranged from $75 million for small states such as Rhode Island to $700 million for big states, including New York and Florida. It is intended for new educational initiatives rather than plugging school budget deficits.

Governor Deval Patrick said at a jubilant State House press conference that the money will go a long way in helping an already launched effort to close a persistent achievement gap among students of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

“We were on this path no matter what, whether we won this award or not,’’ the governor said. “Because we didn’t come up with these ideas in order to compete for a federal award. We came up with these ideas for the children. We owe it to them. And we owe it to our common future.’’

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, among several legislators, education leaders, and local officials at the press conference, said, “Coming out number one in the country, folks, all the stars are aligned. We’ve got to continue to stay focused. This is about the future of Massachusetts, the future of America.’’

The Bay State’s top standing — 471 points out of a possible 500 — is considered a huge win for Massachusetts in the wake of its rejection in the first funding round in March, when the US Education Department selected Delaware and Tennessee.

Although the state made several adjustments to enhance its odds in the second round, including adopting national education standards, it was not immediately clear which of the changes propelled Massachusetts to the top because scoring sheets were not released yesterday.

US Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the state’s top score was “well deserved,’’ calling the state’s application the “best in the country by an extraordinary amount.’’ The state ultimately scored higher in the second round than the two winners in the first round.

“We couldn’t have been more proud,’’ Duncan said.

The state’s quest for the money has sparked intense debate since last summer, on Beacon Hill and at the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

In January, the Legislature and the governor put in place a new law that allows the doubling of charter school seats in districts with the lowest MCAS scores and gives superintendents and state education leaders new powers to overhaul failing schools.

But the law, the most significant passed since the state’s 1993 Education Reform Act, was not enough for Massachusetts to win in the first round, prompting disappointment and finger pointing in the State House.

A federal panel, reviewing Massachusetts’ application at that time, doubted the state would replace its homegrown academic standards, widely considered among the most rigorous in the nation, with a new set of national standards that were still being drafted. The panel also faulted the state for being vague about how it would overhaul the way teachers are evaluated, particularly by not committing itself to tying teacher evaluations to student test scores.

Since then, the state created a task force to examine ways to include student test scores in evaluating teachers. And last month the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted the national standards.

That move sparked considerable debate. While many educators who believe the national standards are on par with the state’s praised the move, many Republicans and some other educators and groups charged that the standards are inferior and could lead to the replacement of the MCAS exams.

Duncan said Massachusetts’ decision to adopt the national standards helped the state to prevail in the second round.

“That was a piece of it, but a small piece,’’ said Duncan, who did not elaborate on the other factors that catapulted the state to the top of the list.

Yesterday, some reservations about switching standards persisted amid the good news from Washington.

“We sold our souls to give up best academic standards in the country for a one time lump of money,’’ said Jim Stergios, executive director of the Pioneer Institute, a conservative research group in Boston that opposes the national standards.

Overall, Massachusetts, which ranked 13th during the first round, scored nearly 60 points higher in the second round. New York came in second, about 6 points behind.

Some 275 school districts, representing about two-thirds of those in the state, have signed commitments to enact elements of the state’s Race to the Top application and will have to submit a proposal outlining their plans to the state to be considered for funding.

Boston, where three-quarters of its 56,000 students come from low-income families, could receive the largest amount, nearly $32 million over four years, while many districts with only a few low-income students, such as Weston and Winchester, would be eligible for less than $50,000.

Among the state’s plans for its share of the money: develop new ways to groom new principals, use student test scores to shape instruction and measure the effectiveness of individual teachers and principals, come up with innovative ways to address such social issues as hunger and poor sleeping that can hinder academic performance.

“This money will go directly into the work that we’re carrying out,’’ said Boston schools Superintendent Carol R. Johnson.

Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, said the state’s first-place finish, following the tough fight for passage of the state’s new education law this year, was “the cherry on top of the ice cream sundae.’’

“The bold steps,’’ Grogan said, “are being recognized by the highest level as the right ones to take.’’

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com; Michael Levenson at mlevenson@globe.com.

Grant highlights

$125m Local school districts’ reform plans
$46.7m Training, incentives to teach in low-performing schools
$28m Data system using test scores to evaluate educators
$18m Initiatives, including longer school days
$6m Teacher training in science, technology, engineering, and math

SOURCE: Executive Office of Education

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