AUGUSTA — Maine has cleared the final hurdle standing in the way of its ability to apply for up to $75 million in federal education reform funds.

A panel charged with pre-approving teacher and principal evaluation models that incorporate student testing data signed off on two evaluation techniques Wednesday, two days before a deadline set by Gov. John Baldacci.

The move gives the green light to Maine school districts looking to incorporate student achievement data in evaluations of their teachers and principals, erasing a legal barrier that would have prevented Maine from applying for funds in the federal Race to the Top application.

The guidelines for Race to the Top — a $4 billion competition meant to spark education reforms — require that states have no legal barriers that prevent linking student achievement data to teacher and principal job evaluations.

The catch is, much work remains to be done in a school district that decides to use student data as an element in teacher and principal evaluations.

The panel — which includes representatives from the state teachers’ union and groups representing principals, superintendents, school boards and special education directors — signed off on two pre-existing evaluation models, amending them to allow districts to factor in student achievement data.

The group offered no specifics on how schools can add student data to the evaluation mix or which student data to use, but left open the possibility of fleshing out details at a later date.

Those plans satisfied Attorney General Janet Mills, who is required to certify on Maine’s Race to the Top application that schools are legally able to use student data in teacher evaluations.

The Race to the Top application is due June 1.

“I am grateful that we came to a very positive conclusion,” Acting Education Commissioner Angela Faherty told the panel, which unanimously endorsed the evaluation techniques.

One of the models, known as the Framework for Teaching, is already widely used in Maine school districts. As written, though, the model includes no student achievement component.

The second model, known as VAL-ED, is an evaluation system for principals that, similarly, doesn’t factor in student achievement.

While evaluation panel members moved forward on approving the two techniques, some on Wednesday expressed reservations about what they were doing.

Maine Education Association executive director Mark Gray said school districts could run into legal troubles as they develop detailed plans for incorporating student data into staff evaluations.

“Our intent was never to cut this loose and say to local school districts, ‘Go ahead, you’re on your own,’” he said. “We were going to prevent all of that by putting some safeguards around that to prevent school districts from getting into trouble.”

Susan Campbell, an Augusta school board member, questioned why the group had to approve a specific evaluation model in time for the May 14 Race to the Top-oriented deadline.

“The point is, we’re committed to doing it. We agree it’s going to happen,” she said.

Attention now turns to whether Maine can secure significant buy-in for its Race to the Top proposals. Friday is the deadline for school districts to indicate to the Department of Education whether they’re signing on.

Matthew Stone • [email protected]