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Race To the Top grant a plus for state only if it doesnt include federal control
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Online poll: Should Georgia and local districts take federal grant money for schools?

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Georgia received some welcome news this week when it was announced our state was one of 10 to receive education grants in the Race To the Top federal program.

Good news to some, anyway. And the debate goes on.

Georgia now is scheduled to receive $400 million in federal stimulus money for schools out of a $3.4 billion pot. The money will be distributed among 26 school districts in the state that supported the application, including Gainesville and Hall County.

It's good news for a state that continues to lag behind much of the nation in most education standards, all while battling a mounting budget deficit that has forced drastic cuts to school systems.

And yet, there still are many detractors who fear the money has too many federal strings attached to accomplish its goals.

Gov. Sonny Perdue isn't among them. He championed the state's bid from the start and was quick to welcome the money. Current state school Superintendent Brad Bryant is on board as well.

The grant will be applied by winning districts in the following areas:

n Adopting student standards and assessments to prepare them for college or the work force.

n Create data systems to chart student progress to help educators improve their instruction.

n Recruit, retain and pay the top teachers and principals.

n Channel resources into underperforming schools.

It all sounds fine, but there are concerns with how all of these goals will be implemented, and specifically what role the federal government will play.

For that reason, some districts chose to pass on taking part in the application process, including Forsyth County. Like many, its officials are worried that federal dollars will simply mean more federal control. Many are seeking different grants that come without such concerns.

Like Perdue, Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield said he is confident the resources can be spent at local leaders' discretion.

Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer, while welcoming the money, is wary of her freedom to spend it.

"Should we accept more federal funding with the additional compliance and management? It is something to think about," she said.

One of the more controversial portions of the state's plan is to create teacher and administrator evaluations that link pay to student performance standards. Many teachers' groups are concerned that this will work as disincentive to retain the best educators. Most agree that for any such system to be accepted and workable, it will need to have teacher input.

What's more, those programs will be expensive to install and maintain. The grant money will help get it started, but will it be enough? Some systems may find this extra burden more costly in the long run.

Those running for state office are split on it. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roy Barnes is all for it. His Republican counterpart, Nathan Deal, opposed the state's bid at first, then offered conditional support based on whether federal mandates accompany the money.

The Republican candidate for school superintendent, Rome's John Barge, a former Chestatee High principal, is against accepting Race To the Top money. His Democratic foe, Joe Martin, supports it.

Those who express concern over federal oversight have good reason: That has been a precedent for past educational policies from Washington. Many accepted No Child Left Behind as a step forward in accountability until they learned that much of it would be underfunded, and that its inflexible standards would take a toll.

In some cases, opponents of the school grant are against all federal stimulus spending. Georgia, like many states, has taken its share in the last two years for transportation and infrastructure needs. In the current budget climate, that money was crucial to keeping the state out of the red.

The problem, though, is that short-term spending initiatives can lead to long-term commitments that the state must fund once stimulus money is gone. That remains a challenge going forward in a time when cuts continue to be made and the economic recovery is moving at glacial speed.

It's easy to see that accepting federal money while opposing federal control is contradictory, like an alcoholic complaining that the bars stay open too late. By taking the money, it feeds the notion that Washington must keep running up our federal budget deficit to new record highs.

All these concerns are valid. Yet the fact remains that someone was going to receive that $3.4 billion, so it only stands to reason that Georgia and its participating districts wanted their share. Taxpayers in Gainesville and Hall are paying the bill for the stimulus money (or, more specifically, our children and theirs will pay), so why not get our piece of it? Yet again, that mindset keeps feeding the beast and channeling tax money to those with their hands out.

And is $400 million enough to make a difference? How the plan works and whether we can support it depends heavily on how the money is spent.

Like Barge, Deal and Dyer, we'd like to see the U.S. Education Department allow local officials to apply the resources where they are most needed. Standards for teacher and student evaluations do not need to be rigid, cookie-cutter concepts; they should be individualized by the state and, to some degree, the districts.

So the jury's out. We are glad Georgia took the initiative to seek the money, knowing how much it is needed. Now it remains to be seen how much sway the state gets in how to use it.

If it goes the way the governor says it will, it will be a plus for Georgia's students. If not, it will be yet another federal mandate that will not solve our problems.

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