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Maine lags in Race to the Top for education reform funding
Legalizing charter schools would help catch the eye of federal officials giving out $100 million grants.

Labor Day has passed. We are officially into a new school year in Maine.

Over the last few weeks, we have had some good and not-so-good news about the state of K-12 education.

The good news is that the most recent Maine Educational Assessment results show some improvement in statewide performance, particularly at the fourth-grade level. This is welcome news, as results have been more or less flat for the past 10 years.

The not-so-good news is that performance at the high school level, as indicated by SAT college entrance scores, continues to be flat and below the national average.

Even with modest recent elementary-level gains, the overall message is clear: Maine students are not being well-prepared for the challenges they'll face after graduation, whether they go on to more education or enter the workplace.

Enter opportunity in the form of the U.S. Department of Education's $4.3 billion "Race to the Top" funding. In announcing this landmark program, which Education Secretary Arne Duncan has described as the education reform equivalent of the moon shot, President Obama said competitive grants to the states would be based on a simple principle – "whether a state can meet a few key benchmarks for reform."

Applications will be scored based on demonstrated progress in closing the achievement gap by minorities; enhancing common standards and assessments; implementing a statewide data system; differentiating teacher and principal effectiveness, and turning around struggling schools.

Secretary Duncan has also made it clear that the state cannot have legal barriers to linking student achievement data to teachers and principals. As well, he has emphasized that states that have limited the development of charter schools will be at a competitive disadvantage.

Much is at stake here. Expectations are that grants in the neighborhood of $100 million and above are likely, starting in early 2010. For a state like Maine, such funding could support reform on a scale many educators have only dreamed about.

How is Maine likely to stack up in attracting Race to the Top funding? A few weeks ago, the New Teacher Project, a national nonprofit active in education reform, issued a report giving its take on selection criteria and ranking all 50 states.

According to this report, Maine is not in the "highly competitive," "competitive" or even "somewhat competitive" categories. Maine does not meet one of the four core criteria that must be demonstrated to be eligible. In Maine's case, it is our lack of charter school legislation that the New Teacher Project believes to be an integral part of the "turning around struggling schools" criteria.

The NTP assessment also suggests that Maine has relative weakness in "data to support instruction" and "great teachers and leaders," two other significant criteria.

This is disturbing news, given the multiyear effort in education reform that Maine initiated back in 1994 by being one of the first states in the nation to adopt state standards – Maine's Learning Results. Ten years ago, states were looking to Maine for leadership. Now many of those same states have passed us by.

What can we do? For a start, we should pass legislation that allows charter schools. This is an idea whose time has come – demonstrably so.

It is true that research suggests that as a group, charter schools produce either slightly higher or similar results to public schools. However, a significant subset of charter schools has produced demonstrably better results in the most challenging of educational environments.

Charter schools are not a cure-all, but they do provide a way to test new approaches and focus reform efforts.

In Maine, a combination of the Maine School Superintendents Association and the Maine Education Association, the state's biggest teachers union, has waged an effective rear-guard action to thwart charters.  One hopes that legislative leadership can find enough common ground with these groups to put Maine back on the Race to the Top map.

Maine's most promising reform initiative for this funding may well be as part of a five-state consortium focusing on high school reform that is being directed by the Great Schools Partnership, based in Portland and led by David Ruff and Duke Albanese. The group seems well-positioned on many of the federal criteria.

Race to the Top is injecting much-needed excitement to those involved in education reform across the country. Let us hope Maine will be counted as one of the winners in this process. It is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.