There now can be no doubt what the federal government is looking for when it comes to supporting innovation in education through “Race to the Top,” a $4.35 billion competitive grant program.

Two states have received $600 million to make their education systems work better for their students. Delaware and Tennessee were chosen because of their commitment to standards for students and teachers. They were selected as the only winners in the first round because they not only have merit pay for teachers and public charter schools, but they have the commitment of all their districts and teachers unions to try new things.

Maine did not even apply for the funds because its current laws would not have made the state eligible. And even if changes now before the Legislature are approved, the state will still lack the buy-in from all the people who are needed to make reform work. So instead of having meetings this spring deciding how to spend new money from the federal government, school districts in Maine are trying to decide which programs to cut.

It wasn’t always like this. Maine was a national leader in developing standards for what all students should know and be able to do as they moved through their education.

They introduced multiple assessments, including both testing and portfolios that held students accountable for their performance.

But other states have passed Maine by taking the next step and holding both teachers and schools accountable for the job they do educating children. Maine has rejected introducing innovation and accountability by maintaining bans on public charter schools and student performance as a measure of teacher effectiveness.

So far, teachers’ unions have stood in the way of these reforms, even when their members are losing jobs to layoffs that could have been avoided with an influx of federal money.

Creative superintendents, like Portland’s Jim Morse, see charter schools as an opportunity to serve children who are not being served now, from early childhood education for kids too young for kindergarten to night school programs for teenagers who have already dropped out.

Testing data that is used to measure what students have learned would also give teachers quality feedback that could make them better in every educational setting.

The Race to the Top program is going to be a big help to schools in Delaware and Tennessee, where they will have more money to implement new ideas and programs. It should also be good for Maine and the 47 other states, by letting them know the standard that they are up against.


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