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Missouri competes for over $4 billion in federal education money

Monday, November 23, 2009 | 4:49 p.m. CST; updated 5:37 p.m. CST, Monday, November 23, 2009

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri must be willing to overhaul its education system and develop new teaching methods to compete for more than $4 billion in federal funds, the state's top education and political leaders said Monday.

State Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro challenged several hundred education, business and political leaders to discount what they believe is true but actually is inaccurate and have the flexibility to figure out how to apply new methods that can work better.

At stake is more than $4 billion in federal funds to implement various new programs that are designed to improve state education systems. The funds are to be awarded through a competitive grant process and are geared toward major educational changes.

"We need to step back, take a new look, have a fresh, out-of-the-box perspective," she said. "Let's start with a clean slate, unmarred by our own experience."

Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon said in an opening address that leaders seeking additional federal money need to be bold and willing to break from the status quo.

"For Missouri's economy to remain viable in a global marketplace and for Missouri's children to keep pace with their peers around the world, we have to dramatically ramp up the quality of the preparation and training we give them from preschool through graduate school," Nixon said.

The daylong planning meeting was designed to help Missouri prepare its application for the federal money. States must submit their proposals by Jan. 19, and the winners of the first phase of grants is to be announced in April. Nicastro warned that fewer than 15 states could end up splitting the money.

The federal money is to be used for adjusting academic standards and assessments, helping struggling schools, assisting teacher recruitment and improving data use.

Most of the initial discussions focused on developing a willingness to change without discussing specific details. But Missouri officials were told to devote specific attention to developing plans for how to help schools that do not graduate more than 60 percent of students.

Ryan Reyna, a policy analyst for the National Governors Association, said relatively few points are awarded for this but that the Department of Education has indicated efforts to help struggling schools could be the difference in deciding what states get money and what states do not.

Education consultant Doug Reeves said the policy discussions should be broader than simply seeking federal money. Reeves, who founded the Colorado-based Leadership and Learning Center, said Missouri has a strong foundation upon which to build and needs to focus on implementing new ideas.

"Ask ourselves, if we don't win, will we believe enough in these things so that we do them for the right reasons — not because of economic incentives but because it is the morally, professionally correct thing to do," Reeves said.


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