Phila. School District, state in running for federal grant money

Posted: January 13, 2010

Just in the nick of time, school district and teachers union officials signed an agreement yesterday that puts Philadelphia in the running to receive millions in federal grants to improve struggling schools.

The federal competition, Race to the Top, will have states vying for a slice of $4.35 billion in funding, the largest federal investment in school reform to date.

If chosen for grants, Pennsylvania and New Jersey would each be eligible for between $200 million and $400 million. Philadelphia, the largest district in the commonwealth, stands to receive up to $8 million.

In a statement released yesterday, Jerry Jordan, president of the 17,000-member Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, said the funds would "help to provide our students with the kinds of opportunities that suburban students already enjoy."

Districts have until the end of the business day today to submit an application to the state Department of Education to participate in the first phase of the contest.

For school districts to qualify for the funds, the district superintendent, union president and board president had to sign the so-called "memorandum of agreement."

The district and union may have pulled it together to make the deadline for the federal program, but what remains to be seen is if they'll come to an agreement on the ongoing contract talks. Teachers have worked under contract extensions since it expired in August.

Representatives from both sides have been tight-lipped about the progress in contract negotiations.

Since talks began, disputes over key issues have slowed progress between a historically powerful union and an administration seeking to uproot tradition with controversial proposals.

Superintendent Arlene Ackerman has pushed for longer school days and the end of seniority-based teacher assignments. Union officials have bemoaned what they said is the district's plan to diminish teachers' control.

The district reaffirmed in a statement yesterday its commitment to working with the PFT.

"We have come together to signal our commitment and dedication on behalf of our students and teachers," Ackerman said in the statement.

The contest, funded by the federal economic stimulus act, is designed to reward states that can demonstrate a record of raising student performance and have built a system to measure student progress and track teacher and principals' practices.

The latest teacher contract extension - the fifth - expires Friday, and negotiations continued.

Meanwhile, Michael Race, spokesman for the state education agency, said that for days it has been receiving a steady stream of applications from districts around the state. He projected that about 150 of Pennsylvania's 501 school districts will participate.

"We're not expecting a majority of districts will apply," he said. "The number of districts that apply will impact the amount we get," he said.

States must apply with the feds by next Tuesday, he said. Winners will be announced in April.

Among other conditions, states will distribute funds by the number of schools within a district that are eligible for Title I money, which provides federal assistance to low-income families.

All of the Philly's 270 district schools fall under that category.

Jordan said that "such programs can help close the achievement gap and increase the graduation rate."

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