Some Michigan schools won’t join ‘Race to the Top’

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Some Michigan school districts with relatively little financial incentive are opting to skip participating in the state’s bid to try and win up to $400 million in federal cash for education.

Several Oakland County school districts are among those saying they won’t sign documents that would allow them to get money from the “Race to the Top” fund because they don’t like some of the attached conditions, including tying teacher evaluations to standardized test scores. But other Michigan districts say it doesn’t make sense to turn down a shot at the money because new state laws will require them to make many of the policy changes regardless.

Michigan officials were working Friday to determine how many districts plan to sign the memos. State applications are due Jan. 19, and most states won’t win any money.

Districts aren’t required to sign the documents until Jan. 12, giving them at least a few days to review the plan. But if the defections are widespread, it could hurt Michigan’s overall bid for a slice of the more than $4 billion fund that was included in the economic stimulus law passed last year. The Obama administration is looking for evidence that schools are buying into the changes before deciding which states win the money.

Several other states also face reluctance from unions and some schools to endorse the plan.

Many of the Michigan school districts opting not to sign memorandums of understanding have relatively few low-income students, meaning they would not receive much Race to the Top money in any case.

Bloomfield Hills schools would get only $43,000 — less than $8 per student — from the program. The wealthy suburban Detroit district’s school board opted this week not to sign the document in part over concerns the plan would force teachers to put too much emphasis on the state’s standardized tests for students, called the Michigan Educational Assessment Program.

“Our relatively good financial position, for the time being, allows us to ‘just say no’ to the so-called experts in Lansing and Washington who would force our teachers to drop all the excellent work they do and instead teach to the MEAP,” Bloomfield Hills superintendent Steve Gaynor said in a memo sent to parents. “We are a high-performing district that doesn’t need or want one-size-fits-all solutions like (Race to the Top), with outsiders telling us how to evaluate our teachers — we already have an excellent plan for evaluation that appropriately looks at student achievement.”

Gaynor notes that the district will have to follow new state laws, including those related to staff evaluations, that are independent of receiving grant money from Race to the Top. Other new Michigan laws raise the state’s dropout age from 16 to 18, allow the academic takeover of low-performing schools and permit the expansion of charter schools with good track records.

Athens schools in Calhoun County, like most surrounding districts, opted to participate in the grant program in part because they figure most of the changes are inevitable because of the new laws. It could bring the district roughly $65 per student.

“We believe most of this is good,” Athens superintendent Rich Franklin said of the program’s broad initiatives. “And we’re going to have to do it anyway.”

Teachers unions and some school districts have been reluctant to sign off on the grants because they aren’t sure what their obligations will be under the contracts signed with the state. The Michigan Department of Education hoped to ease those concerns by posting a summary of the application on its Web page as early as Friday.

(This version CORRECTS overall amount of “Race to the Top” fund to more than $4 billion sted $5 billion.)