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VOL. 125 | NO. 62 | Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Memphis Integral in Race to the Top Effort

By Bill Dries

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Gov. Phil Bredesen answers questions during an interview in January, when his bid to apply for federal Race to the Top money rose to prominence.  Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP

When Tennessee made its pitch to federal officials for $500 million, Memphis school board member Tomeka Hart was part of the five-person Tennessee team.

And as the state formulated its proposal for the Race to the Top funding, Teresa Sloyan of the Memphis-based Hyde Foundation worked with Hart and others to put together the “ask.”

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen mentioned both Memphians by name this week as a statewide education reform plan won funding in the opening round of grants from the $4.35 billion federal pool of money. Tennessee won the full $500 million.

He also gave Memphis education reform efforts a lot of credit for setting the stage for the federal funding.

In November, Memphis City Schools secured a $90 million, six-year grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation of Seattle. The private money is for reform efforts in the evaluation, hiring and retention of teachers.

“I think Memphis in many ways is in a leading position in the state right now as a school district that’s willing to step out,” Bredesen said. “Frankly, a number of the things that were in this application are things that Memphis had pioneered in some fashion. This whole issue of using student achievement data in the evaluation of teaching performance is an ice-breaking thing. It’s just something we haven’t done before. Memphis is the place where the ice broke.”

The Gates Foundation money came in response to a plan that included a pivotal agreement between the Memphis school system and the teachers union, the Memphis Education Association. It allowed the student test scores to be used as one of several factors in evaluating teachers for tenure.

The MEA agreed to waive the state law forbidding the use of the data in tenure decisions in exchange for a role in helping develop the overall evaluation model for teachers.

The Tennessee Legislature followed up in the weeklong special session earlier this year by changing the state law.

The law now allows the use of a pool of student testing data the state has had since 1992. Education reform advocates consider it the richest source of such data in the country.

The Legislature’s action, supported by Democrats and Republicans, was one of several key moments over the past three years that Bredesen credited with setting the stage for the federal funding.

“Fifty states have got troubled schools and issues in their school system. (Federal officials) were looking for the places who were willing to say, ‘Enough is enough with business as usual,’” he said. “The opening up of the charter school issue, the willingness to bring the student achievement data into the teacher evaluation process … the adoption of the much tighter (student) standards that we did – these are all things that five or 10 years ago would have been politically impossible to do.”

Federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan was involved in the 2009 legislative battle to raise the state’s cap on charter schools from 50 to 90.

Bredesen said talk this month by Memphis school officials of cutting funding for charter schools shouldn’t affect the Race to the Top funding.

State officials will meet with federal education officials next month to begin setting up the budgets that will determine how fast the money flows to Tennessee.

Half will be awarded to local school districts through competitive grants the state will oversee. The rest will be for a statewide reform effort.

“The first impact will begin to be seen in the professional development activities that will begin as early as the start of this school year,” said Tennessee Education Commissioner Tim Webb.

Bredesen had expected Tennessee would be one of eight states awarded funding. Instead, only two states made the cut in the first round of funding Monday. Delaware got $100 million.

“We certainly could have found half a dozen districts that would have participated. … But we just said at the outset it’s all or nothing,” he said. “We’re past the point of demonstration projects and pilot projects. We know the directions we have to take. What we’re looking for is the money to take this statewide now and do it for all of our schools. I think that was the strength of our application.”

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