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Orange County

Education Cash Awards Suspended

Budget crunch means schools and teachers won't get millions of dollars they earned. O.C. schools do well, but fewer meet targets.

October 18, 2002|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

The Davis administration has suspended its much-touted education awards program for this academic year, apparently stiffing more than 2,300 high-performing campuses and teachers who had earned millions of dollars in bonuses for their hard work.

Administration officials acknowledged Thursday that the state's budget crisis has made it impossible to fund the awards, a key element of the state's accountability program that has slowly been scaled back as economic woes have worsened.

"It's frustrating, because you see people here put tremendous effort into their work," said Principal Sue DiJulio of Carson Street Elementary School in Los Angeles, which qualified for an undetermined amount of award money this year.

"None of us are doing it for the money, but when you're promised it, you want to get it."

The bad news came as state officials released the latest round of scores for the Academic Performance Index, which is based on standardized test scores and indicates whether schools meet state-mandated targets for improvement each year.

The data, drawn from more than 6,400 campuses this year, also determine whether campuses face sanctions or qualify for awards.

This year's results showed that California's public schools are improving at a slower rate than in the past and that, had rewards been available, fewer schools would have qualified compared to the last two years.

In Orange County, where students traditionally fare better on standardized tests than their counterparts elsewhere in California, schools again posted some of the highest API scores in the state.

But the jubilation was tempered by the fact that the percentage of schools meeting growth targets dropped for a second year in a row, from 72% to 64%. The problem is with the state's accountability system, said William Habermehl, Orange County superintendent of education.

"It is hard to get a lot of improvement at the top," he said.

"You are kind of bouncing off the ceiling, and it is hard for the kids to see the rewards of the great efforts they are putting in."

Gov. Gray Davis originally envisioned the bonuses as an annual incentive for schools and teachers to improve student performance.

Previously, schools earned tens of thousands in extra cash, and individual teachers reaped bonuses of up to $25,000. Since the awards programs were launched in 2000, the state has paid out nearly $822 million.

But the budget crisis forced the state to scale back the ambitious -- if controversial -- awards. Davis had proposed $207 million in school awards this year but in negotiations with the Legislature agreed to cut the funds to preserve other important programs, said Hilary McLean, a spokeswoman for the governor. No replacement funds have been found.

"We had to make a lot of tough choices, including deciding not to fund a program that is near and dear to his heart," she said.

Davis, who is seeking reelection next month, will provide schools with certificates honoring their progress, McLean said. "The governor is every bit as proud of schools that have made significant gains as he has been each and every year that we've had the API as a tool to measure improvement," she said.

State Education Secretary Kerry Mazzoni said one possibility would be for the Legislature to allocate money in a special session; another would be for Davis to include new funding when he submits next year's budget in January. But she said prospects for that are uncertain.

The only money currently available in the budget for awards -- $144 million -- is going to retroactively pay last year's winning schools, she said. The separate $100-million bonus system just for teachers was dropped last year for lack of money and is not expected to be funded retroactively.

The loss of award money has dismayed some educators.

"This is not good news at all," said Crystal Whitley, principal of Fontana Middle School, which had planned to use award money for new furniture, overhead projectors and textbooks. "We're talking about losing basic things that kids and teachers need."

Some teachers and principals, however, said they won't miss the award money, calling huge bonuses for individual teachers divisive and unnecessary. Many teachers and lawmakers said it was unfair to reward some and not others.

"I am glad we're not getting the money," said Nancy Sassaman, an English teacher at Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona. "I would rather students improved, not because schools got money, but because they genuinely learned more."

John Wilber, principal of Fillmore High School, said the money is irrelevant to the more pressing goal: ensuring that all students pass the state's new high school exit exam.

"I don't see any difference in how hard our school tries on these tests each year, with or without the economic rewards," he said. "It's always nice to have extra money, but it doesn't make any real difference."

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