Failed education grant bid instructive, Maine official says

Posted July 30, 2010, at 9:57 p.m.
President Barack Obama is greeted by National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial before addressing the National Urban League 100th Anniversary Convention in Washington, Thursday, July 29, 2010. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama is greeted by National Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial before addressing the National Urban League 100th Anniversary Convention in Washington, Thursday, July 29, 2010. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

AUGUSTA, Maine — When President Barack Obama said Thursday that the Race to the Top education program is the country’s most “ambitious, meaningful reform effort” attempted in generations, it might have sounded a little disheartening to Maine officials.

After all, they learned earlier this week that the state’s application for a share of $3.4 billion in grants in that program had been rejected by the U.S. Department of Education.

But that’s not how Maine Department of Education officials heard it, according to spokesman David Connerty-Marin, who said that the months-long process of developing the application was “hugely beneficial,” even without landing the hoped-for $75 million in grants.

“I think it has sparked a conversation here in Maine that has been incredibly valuable,” he said Thursday afternoon. “It has helped us articulate the work that’s been going on for several years in Maine. It’s a blueprint for moving forward.”

Obama spoke on his administration’s educational reforms at the centennial convention of the National Urban League in Washington, D.C.

In the speech, the president said that it’s essential to put a college degree in reach of everyone who wants it, emphasized the importance of early childhood learning options and discussed his education reform plan.

He also pushed back against some civil rights organizations and teachers unions that have criticized his education policies, saying that minority students have the most to gain from overhauling the nation’s schools.

“We have an obligation to lift up every child in every school in this country, especially those who are starting out furthest behind,” Obama said at the convention.

A report released earlier this week by eight civil rights groups — including the National Urban League — says that just 3 percent of the nation’s black students and less than 1 percent of Latino students are affected by the first round of the Race to the Top competition.

In that round, Tennessee and Delaware received about $600 million for school reform.

Maine was among 35 states and the District of Columbia that applied for the second round of grants, but was not among the 18 states and District of Columbia named as finalists.

Race to the Top asks states to adopt standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace; to build data systems to measure student growth and success; to recruit, develop, reward and retain effective teachers and principals; and to turn around the country’s lowest performing schools.

Connerty-Marin said that 82 school districts signed up to be part of Maine’s Race to the Top application, or 63 percent of all the schools in the state.

He said that Maine did not suddenly generate new programs just to beef up its application.

“Almost everything that was in our application is something that’s already happening in the state of Maine,” Connerty-Marin said.

One ongoing effort that was highlighted is Jobs for Maine’s Graduates, a statewide nonprofit program established in 1993 by the Legislature that helps young people who face barriers to education achieve their full potential.

“Jobs for Maine’s Graduates is a very successful program and we continue to do what we can to expand that program,” Connerty-Marin said. “Obviously, we won’t be able to expand any of these as much without that extra $75 million.”

Maine applied last week for $7.5 million for a program that would assist some high schools to improve their graduation rates, he said, and will continue to seek federal funding.

“It’s going to be slower, but the work will continue to go on,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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