July 28, 2010

Maine misses cut for funds

State comes up short in bid for federal education aid

Eighteen states and Washington, D.C., will continue their bids this summer for billions in federal money aimed at cultivating education reforms.

Follow Matthew Stone's education coverage online in the Report Card blog at www.kjonline.com/blogs/stone.

Maine won't be among them.

The U.S. Department of Education named 19 finalists Tuesday in the second round of Race to the Top, an education reform competition among the states for a share of $4.35 billion in federal money.

Some $3.4 billion of the fund now remains, after Delaware won $100 million and Tennessee $500 million in the first round of awards. Another $350 million is earmarked for multistate partnerships to reform standardized testing.

While New England neighbors Massachusetts and Rhode Island saw their hopes buoyed by making Tuesday's cut, Maine's application for up to $75 million fell short in Department of Education scoring.

Maine was among 36 applicants in Race to the Top's second round. Those with scores of at least 400 on a 500-point scale were named finalists.

The U.S. Department of Education has posted all the state applications on its website, www.ed.gov, and said it would post individual scores online after the competition wraps up in September.

Maine's Race to the Top application focused largely on scaling up existing educational initiatives rather than introducing a slew of new ones, said David Connerty-Marin, a state education department spokesman.

"We're certainly disappointed that we won't be able to scale those up as quickly as we could have with the influx of those (Race to the Top) funds, but it's not going to stop us from doing our work," he said.

The state's 200-page application proposed what the state Department of Education called a system of "personalized learning" that allows students to pursue high school degrees by mastering course materials at their own pace.

The application said all Maine school districts would be required to develop learning support systems to keep struggling students in all grades on track.

It also included multiple mentions of the state's Learning Technology Initiative and its Jobs for Maine's Graduates program. The application proposed using award money to expand both, though it didn't detail a scope of the expansion.

The technology initiative is the first-in-the-nation program that equips all seventh- and eighth-grade students and a majority of high school students with Apple laptops.

Jobs for Maine's Graduates is a nonprofit with programs in more than 60 public schools that targets students at risk of not finishing high school, offering them tutoring help and equipping them with work-readiness skills.

Race to the Top evaluators awarded points based on states' plans for:

* adopting academic standards that prepare students for college and careers;

* building data systems that keep track of student achievement throughout school, college and into the workplace;

* turning around the lowest-achieving schools; and

* recruiting, evaluating and retaining effective teachers and principals.

The prospect of millions of dollars in federal money spurred a number of states to change education policies in those areas. Some states lifted caps on the number of charter schools they allowed; others began work on evaluation systems that rate teachers' job performance in part on their students' academic progress.

This spring, Maine lawmakers changed two policies:

* They passed a bill allowing the state to sign onto a national set of academic standards known as the Common Core. So far, 27 states have adopted the standards.

* They passed legislation allowing so-called innovative schools in lieu of charter schools. Charter schools aren't allowed in Maine, but are favored by the Obama administration.

* And they struck down a legal barrier -- long favored by Maine's largest teachers' union, the Maine Education Association -- that prevented the use of students' academic performance in teacher evaluations.

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