The Idaho Board of Education gave final approval Friday to Idaho’s $120 million Race to the Top federal grant application. Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna told board members that Idaho has a 50-50 chance of receiving funding from the competitive $4.35 billion federal education grant that’s part of the stimulus plan Congress approved last year.
“I am confident that this grant is of the quality to move forward,” Luna said during a board meeting Friday morning. Board members voted 7-0 endorsing the grant, though some were concerned with the potential for new federal mandates in the grant and why some school districts didn’t sign up for grants.
Luna responded to a question by board member Milford Terrell of Boise about whether the Race to the Top money came with strings attached, saying that Idaho won’t have to abandon any programs the board wanted to implement. Some of the grant money is targeted at creating merit pay bonuses for teachers and building computerized data systems to track student achievement. Luna said both of those reforms have been his priorities for Idaho schools.
“(Race to the Top) will finally answer the question, once and for all, does pay for performance attract and retain the highest quality teachers and does it have a positive effect on student achievement,” Luna said.
In the end, the board agreed with Luna. “This whole grant gets us a lot of things that we have wanted to try that we don’t have much data on,” board member Emma Atchley of Ashton said. “I think this will help us a lot.”
During the meeting, board member Ken Edmunds of Twin Falls wondered why some of the larger Idaho school districts didn’t sign up for the program. Luna said the 59 districts that completed applications includes 40 percent of Idaho public school students. “We attracted more of our rural districts than our larger urban districts,” Luna said. He said that if Idaho does get grant money, roughly half of that will go to statewide programs, such as the data systems, that would benefit all Idaho students. Also, any school districts that didn’t apply or don’t receive grants when they are announced in April can apply during a second round of Race to the Top funding in June.
A hard copy of the state’s application must be in Washington, D.C. by Tuesday afternoon. Luna said he heard from federal officials on Thursday that the application must have real signatures, rather than faxed or electronic signatures, from education board president Paul Agidius as well as Gov. Butch Otter and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.
“This has been kind of like The Amazing Race,” Luna said. “It seems like every point there’s one more obstacle or one more requirement.”
Agidius will sign a formal letter, which he will give to Otter at a meeting in Moscow Friday afternoon. Otter will then hand deliver that letter and one signed by him to Luna later on Friday. The complete application will be sent out by Saturday morning at the latest, according to Luna.