Portland schools turn down federal grant over dispute with union

PORTLAND, Ore. - Portland Public Schools has dropped its plan to go after $40 million in free money, and it comes as the district asks voters for $482 million for schools.

The district is passing on money that other local districts are applying for. It has to do with a requirement for using student test scores to evaluate teachers in order to get the money. The union maintains that's not a good way to see if kids are really learning.

The decision has some parents and taxpayers wondering what's going on.

"It's a bit disheartening that they didn't go after it this year, because clearly there's a lot of use that that money could go to," said Eulalie Welsh, who has children in school.

If Portland agreed to evaluate teachers based, in part, on student test scores, it would be eligible for $40 million in grant money from the federal Race to the Top program.

The Canby School District is using its grant money to get iPads for students district-wide. But Portland's giving up the chance at that grant money because of a dispute between the union and the district about using those students' scores to evaluate teachers.

Teachers maintain the federal grant's reliance on test scores for evaluating teachers is only a small measure of real learning.

"I think they want us to teach our kids to learn, and how to think, and how to critically think, problem-solving. I think a test score doesn't do that," said Gwen Sullivan, a representative of the Portland Association of Teachers.

Portland Public Schools didn't want to apply for the money then give it back if the union challenged tying teacher evaluations to student test scores.

"I think everybody can agree that we want to have the most effective educators in our classrooms. That's kind of a common sense thing," said Portland Public Schools spokesman Matt Shelby. "But it gets a little bit more complicated when you ask the kind of follow-up question, 'Well, how do you measure that?'"

They'll have to answer that question by next year. That's when a new Oregon law requires taking student test scores into account in teacher evaluations. The union says that new law includes a lot more factors for those evaluations than the federal grant would have.