Michigan's race for "Race To The Top"

State lawmakers return to Lansing this week and face a heated debate over education reform. Many details need to be ironed out in a handful of bills that would give Michigan a shot at being one of five states selected to receive schools-reform money from the federal government. But lawmakers are running out of time to make Michigan eligible for a slice of $3.5 billion.

University Prep Middle School in Grand Rapids is designed to prepare kids for a university experience. Part of that process is choosing a field of interest. Sabrina is in the eighth grade. She chose to study Kelly Clarkson.

"I'm doing from when she won American Idol to how many CD copies she's actually sold from each album, and I have to make a graph because that's what we're learning is graphs in Math," she explains.

Studying celebrities may seem untraditional, but University Prep principal Daniel Williams says that's the point - to break the status quo and engage kids who might otherwise be bored.

"All those things are interests and if we can build learning and frame learning around that, then kids are going to achieve at higher levels," he says.

Starting next year, all Grand Rapids high school students will have three school options to choose from - a traditional high school, a charter school and a career or college focused school like University Prep. It's part of the experimental, district-wide reforms approved by the state Department of Education in an initiative called "Project Re-Imagine."

Grand Rapids schools Superintendent Dr. Bernard Taylor says he hopes the reforms will be successful enough to eventually be adopted by other districts throughout Michigan.

"Because really it's pushing our thinking about how we better serve students," he says.

Taylor says every district has to make changes in light of recent, deep budget cuts.

"I have to come up with something different," he goes on. "But I'd rather come up with something different that is not a knee-jerk reaction to our fiscal reality, but is a reaction to how we could better serve our students and our families."

State school Superintendent Michael Flanagan has been working with lawmakers in Lansing on legislation that would allow the state to compete for a half-billion dollars in the federal government's "Race To The Top" program.

"These Re-Imagine districts cannot make this happen without the money that we can get from Race To The Top," he explains.

State Senator Wayne Kuipers chairs the Senate Education Committee.

"There are certain pieces to this that I've wanted for a long time," he says.

Kuipers wants to allow for more charter schools, to threaten the state's worst-performing public schools with takeover. It's one of the more controversial parts of the legislation, along with a bill that would evaluate teachers' performances based on their students' performances.

"We have to confront the reality that there are some teachers who are better than others and those really good and well-performing teachers should be compensated accordingly," Kuipers says.

The application deadline for "Race To The Top" is January 19. But lawmakers will have to approve the legislation before they break for the winter holiday in mid-December to be eligible to compete.

Flanagan thinks Michigan will be overlooked by the Obama Administration if the Legislature can't pass the reforms by then. He says though the reforms are tough, they are necessary. And he says state lawmakers will have to stop bickering if they want to be eligible for the money.

"I'm willing to compromise, on some of the nuances of this in order that you pass some legislation quickly or here's what I'm going to do, I'm going to pull my guys off the application," he says. "I am not going to have them work 24/7 - and that's exactly what they're doing - and pulling them off everything else to make this work if I see that we can't actually pull of the legislation, or if there's so many bombs thrown in the way that we have no chance of winning, then I'm going to pull them off. But we can win this."

Flanagan and representatives from education groups in Washington say the reforms the feds are looking for will most likely become nation-wide standards. And Dr. Bernard Taylor in Grand Rapids says Michigan should make it a priority to lead the way.

"It's a tough political landscape, but it's clear what the anticipated outcome is from the Department of Education and as a state we'll be able to comply with those things or we won't," Taylor says. And if we can't then we're also saying we want to forfeit the right to have those funds come to Michigan - which would be unfortunate, I would think."