Months after education leaders in Montana expressed concerns about the urban bias of a federal education grant, those same leaders are now preparing to apply for the next round of funding. Montana was one of only 10 states that chose not to apply for the first round of funding, with the Superintendent of Public Instruction, Denise Juneau, stating at the time that Montana should not be forced to conform to federal requirements that do not fit the unique needs of the state. In July, Juneau wrote to the Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, calling for significant changes to the rules of the grant. The letter received support from all major education groups in the state.
Juneau explained that Montana would have had to compromise local control of schools and change teacher evaluations in ways that could violate labor contracts in order to qualify for the program. Additionally, they may have to consider transferring quality teachers from one district to another. However, with state revenues decreasing and school districts facing a $42 million shortfall, education officials have decided to compile an application for the grant. If successful, Montana could receive between $25 million to $75 million. Governor Brian Schweitzer emphasized the need for a "Montana plan" that addresses the specific challenges faced by the state.
Juneau, who met with federal officials in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, acknowledged that some low-performing schools in Montana would benefit from the reform initiatives of Race to the Top. She also highlighted that the grant program now focuses on supporting "innovative" schools, which she believes Montana has many of.
Eric Feaver, president of the MEA-MFT teacher’s union, was initially critical of Race to the Top, referring to it as "devastating and irrational." However, he has now committed to assisting in writing the state’s application. His main concern is to ensure that the state maintains its core values, including local control, public schools, collective bargaining, and teacher licensure. Other education organizations, such as the Montana School Boards Association, School Administrators of Montana, and the Montana Rural Education Association, have also expressed their willingness to collaborate on the application.
Feaver acknowledged the importance of not rejecting the federal government’s offer outright, considering the state’s current financial situation. Although the funding would be one-time-only, he believes it is necessary to explore all available revenue streams. Once the application is completed, it will be presented to school districts for their input. School districts must agree to apply for the funds before the application can be submitted.
Juneau expressed optimism about Montana’s chances of receiving funding in the second round, especially since only one out of the 15 states that were finalists in the first round was from the West. She hopes that the Obama administration will strive for geographical balance in the allocation of funds.