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Indiana competes for school funds

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Indiana hopes to win $250 million or more in competitive federal stimulus grants for schools – money the state superintendent says it deserves because of recent changes lawmakers made to education policies.

The state has altered some education rules to get in line with President Barack Obama’s administration and the federal Department of Education’s $4 billion “Race to the Top” grant program.

Charter school caps proposed during the legislative session were shot down after critics said it would hurt Indiana’s chances of garnering some of the money. And the budget lawmakers approved this year eliminated a legal roadblock that prohibited teachers from being judged on student achievement. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan has warned that such restrictions would hurt a state’s chances.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett, a Republican, said the recent changes strengthen Indiana’s application.

“Our reform efforts already under way closely mirror the pillars of Race to the Top, because they have been crafted with the goals of increasing accountability, freedom and competition in our schools to increase students’ academic achievement,” Bennett said.

Bennett, who took the job in January, has repeatedly said that he isn’t afraid to make changes quickly. Critics have objected to some of his plans, though. A proposal that would make it easier for people outside the education field to become teachers, for example, has met resistance from educators across the state.

State Department of Education spokesman Cam Savage said Indiana school districts will likely have the option to opt out of any programs that are funded with the competitive grants if they do not agree with the plan’s goals.

“For those who do, there’ll be more money,” Savage said.

Only 10 to 20 states are expected to win money from the “Race to the Top” program because of its requirements. Applications were made available last week, and federal guidelines based on population show that Indiana could be up for $150 million to $250 million. But the state could apply for more.

State officials aren’t yet saying exactly what programs will be proposed, although they have been working with schools to develop plans. The ideas will reflect the four goals of the “Race to the Top’’ — tougher academic standards, better ways to recruit and keep effective teachers, a method of tracking student performance and a plan of action to turn around failing schools.

“We’ll be very bold in what we propose,” Savage said. “We’ll have an aggressive program that really attempts to move the needle on student achievement.”

That could mean using grant money for programs such as state funded pre-kindergarten, said John Ellis, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents. The stimulus money is only a short-term solution, and would not cover future costs of running such a program. But Ellis noted the cash could cover the cost of creating a blueprint, which schools could implement as the economy improved and budgets because less tight.

“This is a lot of money,” Ellis said of the grants. “If this helps us bridge the gap to meet some of those needs, we cannot ignore that.”

The grants will be awarded in two rounds. Indiana will submit its application during the first one, which has a Jan. 19 deadline and will make awards in the spring. That could help the state avoid competition from states still making policy changes to align with the Obama administration guidelines.

Applying early could also give Indiana a second shot if it falls flat in the first round, since applications for the second round aren’t due until June 1 and awards will be made by Sept. 30.

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