By Ericka Mellon
Texas will not compete for a potential $700 million in federal grant funding for schools, Gov. Rick Perry said Wednesday, because it could give Washington too much say in deciding what the state's students should learn.
His decision to forgo the money available in the Race to the Top grant competition defied pleas from local school leaders who said their districts could use it. But Perry, joined by state Education Commissioner Robert Scott, said the funding came with too many federal strings -- such as having to adopt national curriculum standards.
"Our states and our communities must reserve the right to decide how we educate our children and not surrender that control to a federal bureaucracy," Perry said in Houston, where many superintendents had lobbied for his support of the grant.
Thirty-nine other states and the District of Columbia have told the U.S. Department of Education they intend to apply for the first round of the Race to the Top funding. The $4 billion will go to those that embrace certain reform efforts such as national standards, charter schools and the use of student test scores in teachers' job evaluations. Texas and Alaska are the only states not to join a common standards initiative.
Perry's decision to stay out of the grant contest drew praise from local teachers groups, who oppose some of the ideas promoted by the grant. State lawmakers generally split along party lines.
Based on its size, Texas could have qualified for $350 million to $700 million -- or $75 to $150 per student.
"Everybody can use money," said state Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, who chairs the House Public Education Committee. "But if you look at a one-time infusion of $80 per child and then having to change your laws permanently -- we're better off doing what we're doing."
The president of the Texas Association of School Boards, which represents the state's 1,035 districts, disagreed.
"The governor's unilateral decision not to submit a plan means that Texas school districts that are facing serious financial challenges will not have an opportunity to apply for federal funding to implement positive changes in our schools," said Sarah Winkler, also an Alief school trustee. "Even one-time funding would allow districts to institute meaningful reforms."
HISD chief disappointed
Terry Grier, superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, the largest district in the state, said he is disappointed Texas is sitting on the sidelines in the grant competition and in the drafting of national curriculum standards.
"If our standards are that much better, why don't we get in there and convince everyone else in the nation to rise to our level?" Grier asked.
The state's major teachers groups -- the Texas Classroom Teachers Association and the local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers -- had urged Perry and Scott not to apply for Race to the Top.
"It's hard to justify the adoption of policies that we think are detrimental to Texas for such a minimal investment," said Linda Bridges, president of Texas-AFT.
Bridges said the grant encouraged "draconian" ways to fix struggling schools, such as closing them. She also disagreed with its call to link student test scores to high-stakes personnel decisions -- a move the HISD school board plans to make today.
State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, described Perry's move to shun the federal grant as "shocking."
"His argument against applying boils down to the fact that he doesn't like the teacher that will grade his test," Coleman said in a statement. "This is an application that even awards points for his own pet policies -- teacher incentive pay and charter school expansion."
Some states, California and Florida among them, scrambled to change their laws to qualify for the Race to the Top, while Perry delayed announcing whether Texas would apply until just days before the application is due.
As of last week, Texas Education Agency staff had spent 700 to 800 hours on the application in case the governor gave the green light.
State Rep. Scott Hochberg, D-Houston, pointed out that Texas would lose only 70 points on a 500-point grant application by not participating in the national standards movement.
"I share concerns about the national curriculum, but we could have left that out of our proposal and still competed for the money," Hochberg said. "Why would we throw in the towel before seeing how well we stacked up against other states?"
U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Perry's main rival in the Republican gubernatorial primary, also supports local curriculum standards but questioned Perry's motives for rebuffing the grant.
"We all believe that Texas children should be taught by Texas standards and hope that today's decision was more about the state of our schools and not election-year politics," said Hutchison spokesman Jeff Sadosky.
Bill White, the former Houston mayor and a Democratic candidate for governor, said Perry should have applied for the grant and tailored it to the state's school improvement goals.
"To improve our schools at no cost to local property taxpayers," White said in a statement, "we need to get back the tax dollars sent by Texans to Washington."
Chronicle reporter Joe Holley contributed to this story.