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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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State must race to make changes to win funds

In November, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire announced that the state would sit out the first round of competition for federal Race to the Top funds to focus on changes needed to match the criteria for innovation. If successful, the state stands to gain hundreds of millions of dollars over four years. The second round opens in late spring and ends in June. Between now and then, the Legislature and the educational system must adopt some changes or the state doesn’t stand a chance.

Some states have decided to forgo the money, with the latest being Texas. Its governor decided that it didn’t want the feds dictating standards. We’d advise Washington state leaders to do the same, if the standards were ill-advised. But they aren’t. In fact, they align nicely with what state education reformers and business leaders have been advocating for years: Better evaluation of teachers and principals. Merit pay. Rewarding innovation. Emphasis on math and science. Intervening in failing schools.

So pursuing the money is an easy call. However, securing the money won’t be simple.

Race to the Top guidelines emphasize the importance of high quality teachers and require states to highlight their efforts to develop and promote them. The guidelines note that teachers’ credentials are not a reliable indicator of student success, so they call for states to collect reliable student data and use them as a factor in whether teachers and principals deserve higher pay or more training.

Historically, unions have resisted such a change, but they are starting to come around. The Philadelphia teachers union is endorsing that state’s application. The Pennsylvania Education Association is encouraging participation if districts think it makes sense for them.

On Tuesday, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, announced support for reforms that would make it easier to remove bad teachers and reward good ones. AFT is the nation’s second-largest teachers union. This effort will be spearheaded by the Obama administration’s special master for executive compensation.

“We need to set high standards for students and teachers,” Weingarten said. “This is the time to shed the old conflicts and come together. Our system of evaluating teachers has never been adequate.”

The Partnership For Learning recently released results of a survey of Washington state teachers and it shows strong support for Race to the Top principles, including improving schemes to reward good teachers and allowing the state to intervene in failing schools (the latter would require legislative action, because it is currently against the law). The question is whether union leadership is as accepting of change. The governor’s office has been in talks with the Washington Education Association on acceptable reforms.

If that hurdle is cleared and lawmakers make the necessary legal changes, then the state will have greatly improved its chances at landing desperately needed money to improve education.

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