Montana schools to seek U.S. funds

2010-03-19T00:00:00Z Montana schools to seek U.S. fundsROB ROGERS Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
March 19, 2010 12:00 am  • 

Montana education officials are creating a plan to compete for federal stimulus dollars reserved for academically high-performing states.

It’s part of the federal Race to the Top program, and the state could earn between $20 million and $80 million if it meets all the requirements, which include having state laws that support charter schools and creating teacher and principal evaluations that are based in part on student performance.

Hopes aren’t exactly high, however.

“I don’t know anybody in education that is optimistic that Montana is going to be able to qualify for this money,” said Billings School District 2 Superintendent Jack Copps.

Race to the Top, he said, was designed more to aid and reform ailing urban and inner-city school districts, not rural ones.

Still, the state has to try, said Darrell Rud, executive director of School Administrators of Montana.

“If we don’t apply for it, there’s not a lot of (other) possibilities for revenue,” he said. “Schools are hurting and it’s only getting worse.”

Montana school districts will be in the hole approximately $42 million as they start the next school year, he said.

Rud would be less supportive of competing in Race to the Top if there were other funds the state could go after.

“There’s just a couple of pieces there that make portions of (Race to the Top) pretty nonpalatable,” he said.

For example, one provision requires states to remove principals from chronically underperforming schools. Rud, a past principal who was once transferred from a high-performing school to a low-performing school within his district, said too many factors in the student’s life — economics, home life and health — are out of a principal’s control. Simply removing a principal isn’t going to fix a problem, he said.

Still, he’s pleased with the state’s decision to compete and said it has a responsibility to go after whatever funding it can get.

Denise Juneau, the state superintendent of schools, thinks the application the state has put together justifies Montana’s inclusion the funding competition.

“We should be competitive,” she said. But “we need to do it our way.”

Race to the Top requires that states have laws that facilitate the creation of charter schools. Montana has no such laws.

Instead, Juneau said, the Montana Board of Education has a provision that allows educators to petition the board to start a charter school. Until now, no one’s done it, she said. She sees that as a good thing and believes it shows the state is flexible enough to allow its schools to experiment.

As an example, she pointed to SD2’s Career Center, a high school facility that provides job training, advanced curriculum and core education classes to 800 full- and part-time students from Billings’ three high schools.

The other controversial provision — requiring principal and teacher evaluations to be based 50 percent on students’ academic performance — can be worked around, she said.

“I think there’s another way to do that,” she said.

The state needs to work with educators to create a master list of requirements that would be included in evaluations. Individual districts could then tailor the components to fit their needs on a local level, she said.

In other words, the state would provide the model for evaluations and the districts would choose to use it, she said.

However, key to making any move in reforming education on a state level is to ensure the State Office of Public Instruction “is doing it with educators,” Juneau said, “not to them.”

Contact Rob Rogers at rrogers@billingsgazette.com or 657-1231.

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