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$40 Million Gates Grant To Pittsburgh Public Schools May Be In Jeopardy

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Four years ago, amid great excitement, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation awarded Pittsburgh Public Schools an extraordinary grant -- $40 million to become a national model of improving teaching in the classroom.

"We were so excited when we got it because we were a long shot," said Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Linda Lane.

But cooperation between the district and the teachers' union has devolved into an all-out fight over teacher evaluations.

"The reason we got the grant in the first place is that we were working together, and now that that's deteriorated, there is absolutely a high level of concern," said Dr. Lane.

Under the grant, the union and the district were to develop a criteria to evaluate teacher performance with the idea of rewarding superior educators and retraining those who could not make the grade.

But those talks have broken down. The district and the union have been at a stalemate for months, and sources close to the talks say the Gates Foundation has said it will no longer fund this grant without an agreement.

This week, they issued KDKA's Andy Sheehan this statement:
"The Gates Foundation made a significant investment in Pittsburgh because their leaders were committed to ensuring every student has an effective teacher in every class. This is complicated work that requires collaboration, the commitment of the board, the superintendent and the union was a requirement of the grant. We are disappointed by the current turn of events."

Carey Harris, of the watchdog group – A-Plus Schools, says losing the grant would be catastrophic.

"I think it would be devastating to the school district," Harris said. "It would devastating to the city, but most importantly, it would devastating to the kids."

The teachers' union says it agreed to a system of evaluation, but not on the minimum scores requiring retraining. Since teachers who don't improve may be let go, union head Nina Esposito-Vigitis says that bar has been set too high.

"When teachers are weighed on a much more severe level than teachers across the state or the country, of course, you're going to lose teachers who are good teachers," said Esposito-Vigitis.

Dr. Lane says she twice lowered the minimum score.

"I think we've gone to the place where this is as far as we can. I think it's fair. I think it's reasonable," she said. "It is not about firing teachers. It's about helping teachers develop."

But the disagreement has taken on nationwide implications.

The National American Federation of Teachers has put people and resources in Pittsburgh and has called striking down these new standards a "crucial fight."

Harris says this issue should be settled locally.

"They need to get back to the table and work for kids and focus on the kids," Harris said. "Put national interests and politics aside and work for kids."

But without an agreement in short order, this grant will die on the vine, the school district will receive a black eye and a golden opportunity to improve education here in Pittsburgh will be squandered.

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