To soften the blow of state budget cuts, Kansas school leaders say they hope to receive $175 million through a competitive federal grant program.
But state leaders said winning a "Race to the Top" grant will be a steep uphill climb for Kansas.
The grant competition offers a total of $4 billion in stimulus money to states that show they have made and will take drastic measures to reform failing schools and improve the public school system as a whole.
Cuts in the Kansas State Department of Education staff make completing the 70-page application by Jan. 19 alone a daunting task, said Diane DeBacker, interim commissioner of education.
Grant requirements by federal education officials, including factoring performance evaluations in teacher salaries and rules that encourage more independent charter schools, are difficult to directly address with current state law — or lack of it, she said.
Although the U.S. Department of Education released more detailed grant requirements this month, exactly what the federal officials are looking for is unclear, said state Sen. Jean Schodorf, R-Wichita, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee.
"Do we reinvent the wheel to apply for a grant?" she said. "We think we have a very good education system in Kansas."
Neighboring states have been promoting their school improvement plans to districts and lawmakers for months — some since the competition was announced in February.
Colorado Lt. Gov. Barbara O'Brien has led public meetings statewide to involve schools in planning a reform strategy.
Missouri officials brought together educators and lawmakers last week to discuss the state's application.
But Kansas has been keeping its plans low-key, mostly because the staff reductions at the education department make it difficult to process all the information, DeBacker said.
"There are about five people at the state department trying to figure out and understand the
rules" of about 1,000 pages of federal guidelines, she said.
About 20 positions — or roughly 8 percent of the state education department's staff — have been unfilled since July.
Wichita-area school administrators, including those in Wichita, the state's largest district, said they don't know details of the state's plan and weren't asked for input.
DeBacker said districts should receive a draft of the state's application in December, and if they want a share of any grant money the state might get, they have to sign on to it.
The state needs districts' support because at least one-half of the grant money has to go directly to districts, DeBacker said.
Tying pay to salaries
The biggest challenge for Kansas will be outlining how teacher evaluations could be used to determine salaries, DeBacker said. That factor makes up almost one-third of the grant application.
In Kansas and nationwide, teachers usually receive pay increases for experience and additional higher education — not for how good they are at their jobs.
Kansas law doesn't restrict teacher performance being linked to teacher pay, as some states do. But traditionally, unions have resisted so-called "merit pay."
The Wichita district this year is testing a new teacher evaluation system in which a supervisor uses a rubric to score a teacher's classroom performance. The score won't be tied to pay at this point.
Teachers unions are hesitant to support merit pay because the evaluations can be very subjective, and schools often can't afford to maintain paying the raises, said Larry Landwehr, president of the United Teachers of Wichita.
Landwehr said his union is opposed to using student test scores to judge whether a teacher deserves a raise.
"Classes are determined by random (selection)," he said. Pay increases based on good state assessment scores would depend on which teacher "gets a lucky draw."
Prohibitive state law
The competitive federal grants are meant to inspire drastic changes to turn around the nation's low-performing schools.
One reform that U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has championed is charter schools, which are funded with tax dollars but run by leadership independently of the local school district.
About 10 percent of the grant application deals with innovative schools, some requirements mentioning charter schools specifically.
But Kansas has one of the most restrictive charter school laws in the nation.
It was one of four states receiving a failing grade on a survey by the Center for Education Reform, an organization that supports charter schools.
Charter supporters argue that providing the school leadership with flexibility in state requirements allows them to try different instruction methods and boosts student performance, especially of those at risk of failing or dropping out.
DeBacker said that by U.S. Department of Education standards, Kansas charter law is prohibitive. Only a local school district can approve a charter school application, and there is no appeals process if the application is rejected.
That doesn't inspire radically different educational approaches, according to a 2006 study of Kansas charter schools by the National Alliance For Public Charter Schools.
"Most charters resemble small district programs as opposed to vibrant stand-alone schools," the report states.
Nationwide, about 70 percent of charter schools operate independently of school districts, said Todd Ziebarth, vice president for policy for the alliance. None of the 34 operating Kansas charter schools were started by a group independent of a local district.
But with the legislative session not starting until Jan. 11 and the application due eight days later, there's not much Kansas educators can do about the charter school laws now, DeBacker said.
DeBacker said the grant requirements provide a little room regarding innovative schools by asking about other innovative schoolwide programs. She said extensive magnet school programs, like the one in Wichita schools, should earn some points.
Kansas at back of line?
Any Race to the Top money would be available to local districts for four years.
If Kansas isn't one of the estimated 20 states to win the first round of competitive grant money in April , DeBacker said it will apply for the second round in June.
Kansas is also applying for the second round of education recovery act money by mid-December. It hopes to get $121 million.
The $242 million the state has already received is slated for the parts of the school districts' operating budget the state can no longer pay for.
Deputy Commissioner of Education Dale Dennis has said he is concerned that using recovery act dollars to backfill the state budget puts Kansas in the back of the line for any further funding.
Kansas has advantages in the strength of its school system, DeBacker said, including growing test scores, data collection, advanced curriculum models and the Kansas Learning Network, which supports struggling schools.
"There's a huge change in philosophy we've been working on in Kansas," DeBacker said. "Having Race to the Top money and motivation behind us, would help take us to the next level."