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Race to Top grant may be jeopardized

By Michael Birnbaum
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; B04

A Maryland legislative committee voted Monday to reject a new regulation requiring that half of teachers' evaluations be based on student progress, calling into question the future of a $250 million federal Race to the Top grant.

The move is a challenge to a core component of the education plan proposed by Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and State Schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick in the spring. The federal money was awarded in part because Maryland promised that student progress would be such a large component of the evaluations, and President Obama has encouraged such changes.

But opponents of the policy, including the state's teachers unions, say that standardized tests are not designed to give information about teachers and that teachers should not be held responsible for outside factors that affect achievement.

The state board "can tweak the regulations," state Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's) said before the vote was cast Monday.

Pinsky, co-chair of the committee that reviews regulations, said that his legal analysts had expressed "serious concerns" about the 50 percent level, which he said was inappropriately high.

The disagreement hinges on whether the Maryland Board of Education overstepped a new state law that requires student growth to be a "significant" factor in teacher evaluations but limits any one criterion to 35 percent.

The regulations adopted by the Board of Education after the passage of the law would limit any single component of student progress, such as standardized test scores, to 35 percent. However, other measures of student progress would be combined to total 50 percent. Pinsky said that the legislature had specifically considered and rejected the idea of student progress accounting for 50 percent of evaluations.

The review committee determines whether new regulations are in compliance with existing laws. After it signs off on new regulations, they are opened for public comment before the state Board of Education votes on their final form. But O'Malley also has the option of pushing the regulations through, despite the committee vote. The school board can also revise the regulations.

A spokesman for the governor said no decisions had been made.

"The governor remains very committed to a strong school reform package," said Shaun Adamec, the spokesman. He "will not do anything that will jeopardize the Race to the Top funding."

The federal Education Department said it would monitor states' compliance with their Race to the Top proposals.

"If any state significantly changes the plan, it will be putting all Race to the Top funding in jeopardy," said Justin Hamilton, a spokesman for the department. But he said that what was "significant" would be determined on a case-by-case basis.

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