HARVARD — After the news came this week that Massachusetts lost its initial competitive bid for a $250 million slice of the $4.35 billion Race to the Top federal school stimulus pie, Harvard Schools Superintendent Thomas Jefferson said the loss is not a huge blow to the district.
“While we tirelessly explore all available funding sources that might supplement our resources, I don’t believe anyone in Harvard held out hope that too much would come of this,” said Jefferson on Monday, March 29.
The program, unveiled last July by the Obama administration, awards funding to states with plans to significantly revamp education systems to reach failing schools.
Sweeping Massachusetts legislation passed on Jan. 15, immediately before the national program’s application filing deadline, aimed to do just that. The new Massachusetts law permits superintendents to shake up principal and teacher posts in under-performing systems and permits more charter schools in low-MCAS testing districts.
While Harvard is far from being designated as a failing school system, the school committee voted in December to align with two-thirds of the other school districts in the state in applying for Race to the Top funding.
In order to receive the best reception, the required memorandums of understanding filed by individual districts were to be signed by school superintendents, school committees and local teachers unions. In town, the Harvard Teachers Association did not sign the memorandum. Jefferson noted the teachers group is no different than many of “their suburban counterparts” in not signing off on the memorandum.
“At the state level, the Massachusetts Teachers Association actually endorsed it as a state organization and they provided a tremendous amount of information to the locals and ultimately said this is a very local decision and that ‘we’ll support you either way you go,'” said Harvard Teachers Association President Kathleen Doherty. Though the matter wasn’t put to a local teachers association vote, the issue was heavily vetted, Doherty said.
“I wouldn’t say we had a vote, but the Executive Board discussed it at some length, we was sent info to member and sought their feedback which we did receive — some was written, some oral — and there was an opportunity at each school to attend an informal discussion” on the Race to the Top matter, Doherty said. “It was an informed decision” therefore to opt not to sign off on Harvard’s memorandum.
“There were overwhelming concerns, just short of unanimous, among those who chose to respond. The consensus was that for a variety of reasons we should not sign on,” Doherty said. Contacted on short notice, Doherty said all of the reasons stated weren’t immediately available to her but she did admit that some sentiment was expressed that some teachers balked at the notion of changing the metric by which teachers are gauged. Still, there were “arguments both ways,” she said.
Other potential Massachusetts application pitfalls may have been the state’s limited charter school growth opportunities, a weak commitment to strengthen teacher and principal evaluation metrics and a feeling that the state would balk at adopting national academic standards.
The Patrick administration has so far indicated an unwillingness to sign off on nationalized academic standards if they’re found to be in any way weaker than Massachusetts’ standards.
“Massachusetts is probably the sole state where the current curriculum frameworks are potentially higher than the proposed national standards,” said Jefferson. “I suspect there are states in the country that need the boost this would provide at least as much, if not a great deal more than Massachusetts.
Jefferson said Harvard is not a Title 1 entitlement district, meaning it doesn’t statistically meet the criteria of needing additional federal funding to bridge the gap between low-income students and other students.
On Monday, the U.S. Department of Education announced that just two states will partake in this first round of funding: Delaware will receive as much as $107 million and up $502 million award could go to Tennessee. Awards are based, in part, on a state’s population, and so Massachusetts was angling for a $250 million award.
Of the 16 finalists, Massachusetts placed 13th nationally. Georgia was the next state closest to receiving funds, finishing third, while Florida came in fourth.
Massachusetts Education Secretary Paul Reville and others pitched the state’s collective education innovations in Washington two weeks ago, to no avail on this first round funding. All is not lost. A second go-round of grant funding is slated to be awarded in June, and education officials believe that another 10 to 15 states could be chosen to dip into the over $3 billion remaining in the fund at that time.