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Big Education Grants Threatened By Teacher Spats

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Teachers and school districts say they agree that better teacher evaluations are needed, but they can't agree on the details. Now, those disputes threaten federal grants meant to encourage education reform.

Take New York state, which has a lot of failing schools. Those schools got more than $100 million in federal School Improvement Grants. In exchange, districts promised to phase in new evaluation systems.

But John King, state commissioner of education, says districts haven't followed through. So he may have to take drastic action. "Their grants would be suspended. There ought to be a process in place to evaluate teachers and principals. They understood that at the time they applied for the grants," King says.

The unions say they back the idea in principle of finding a better way to evaluate effective teachers.

But Carl Korn with New York State United Teachers says the plans would link teachers' future to how students do on a standardized test. "I don't think anybody out there would want their career determined by how 25 8-year-olds did on one two-hour test. That's just not fair."

The unions say that the commissioner could simply ask the federal government for more time for districts to negotiate. But King says students can't wait. "It would be inconsistent with the vision of the School Improvement Grants program, but also inconsistent with the best interests of students in the schools," he says.

On Friday, the chancellor of the New York City schools sent a letter to King, saying he doubted the city would be able to resolve the issue. He blamed the union for insisting on an elaborate appeals process for teachers who get an unsatisfactory rating. Low-performing schools in New York City alone stand to lose $50 million.

Deadlock In Hawaii

A similar deadlock in Hawaii threatens a $75 million grant from another federal program called Race to the Top. To get that grant, Hawaii committed to a number of changes, including new teacher evaluations. Those changes are stalled, and now the federal Department of Education says that means the state could lose the money.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has placed states' Race to the Top money in the "high risk" category. Stephen Schatz, of Hawaii's Education department, says that this has served as a wake-up call. He says he hopes to reopen formal negotiations with the unions, which have been suspended.

Hawaii will get its chance to argue for keeping its grant when federal inspectors come visit in the coming weeks.

Other states have run into similar roadblocks. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has ordered a review of that state's new evaluation system after teachers complained it is intrusive and takes time away from instruction. These disputes come as states are particularly hungry for funds because of their tight budgets. Korn of New York State United Teachers says that the state is using that fact as a pressure tactic. "This Education Department is choosing brinksmanship and politics to threaten to disrupt services to New York's neediest students," he says.

More grief may lie ahead, as the education reform process continues to require painful sacrifices.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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