California could lose out on millions of federal education dollars unless legislators change a law that prevents it from using student test scores to measure teachers' performance, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is expected to announce in a speech today.
California has among the worst records of any state in collecting and using data to evaluate teachers and schools.
Moreover, a 2006 law that created a teacher database explicitly prohibited the use of student test scores to hold teachers accountable on a statewide basis, although it did not mention local districts.
Only a few of the state's nearly 1,000 districts evaluate teachers by using their students' scores, though a dozen more are considering such moves, according to state officials. Los Angeles Unified, the state's largest, does not grade teachers based on student performance.
Data-driven school reform is a major focus of the Obama administration's education policies.
Duncan, who has repeatedly chastised states with similar laws, plans to withhold some economic stimulus money from those states, according to an advance text of his speech to be given today at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington.
Money from the administration's Race to the Top fund, about $4.35 billion, is intended to help states boost reform efforts at a time when most are facing severe budget cutbacks.
That money, a fraction of the nearly $100 billion provided for education through the economic stimulus bill, will be granted competitively in large chunks to a few states.
In recent public appearances, Duncan singled out California's law as "ridiculous" and "mind-boggling," saying that it prevents the state from identifying which of the state's 300,000 teachers are effective and which are not.
"No one in California can tell you which teacher is in which category," Duncan said at one meeting of education officials. "Something is wrong with that picture."
If Duncan stands firm on his position, state legislators may have to renegotiate the sensitive issue with the state's powerful teachers unions, which are concerned that their local collective bargaining agreements would be trumped by state law.
"We would have some very serious discussions with the Legislature" if they tried to rewrite the 2006 legislation, said David Sanchez, president of the California Teachers Assn.
"We'd suggest the state look very carefully at that before they made that move," said Gary Ravani, an official with the California Federation of Teachers.
State education officials said they have repeatedly told Duncan that the amendment -- inserted into the law at the request of teachers unions -- in no way prevents such accountability at school districts in the state, where evaluation and pay decisions are made.
The state's three top education officials wrote to Duncan earlier this month disputing his interpretation of the law.
"We want to reiterate to you that we have the capability to link teacher and student data, which is exactly what you are advocating nationally," said the July 9 letter signed by state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, state Board of Education President Ted Mitchell and state Secretary of Education Glen Thomas .
Duncan has not responded to the letter, but on Thursday a spokesman, Justin Hamilton, said the secretary "stands by his public comments."
And Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez), who is the chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, agreed with Duncan's interpretation and urged the state to alter its law.
"I hope states that don't presently meet the eligibility will decide to take the steps necessary to meet it. It's the right policy to take our education system to the next level," he said in a statement.
Regardless of the interpretation of the law, few would dispute that California is behind on data collection.
California ranks 41st among states in its use of education data, according to a 2008 survey by the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit based in Austin, Texas.
The federal guidelines have been widely anticipated for months and two other states, Arizona and Indiana, recently struck similar language from their laws to qualify for Race to the Top funds, according to the Data Quality Campaign.
Today's announcement will not be the final word on the dispute. States have a month to comment on the draft guidelines before they are finalized.
As part of that process, California's attorney general also can certify that the state law does not create a barrier to teacher accountability. State officials said they planned to argue their case forcefully.
If California is required to change its law, its reform efforts could be turned into confusion, some lawmakers say.
"My worry is that the debate over this particular provision ends up generating opposition to the whole notion of meaningful accountability and a meaningful data system," said state Sen. Joe Simitian (D-Palo Alto), who wrote the 2006 legislation that created the statewide teacher database, known as CALTIDES.
"We were able to strike a balance that brought a lot of folks along on a very challenging issue. The consensus we've developed could be badly damaged."
The dispute over state laws is not the only controversial aspect of Race to the Top. The department will have spent more discretionary money on that program than any other reform in the last 29 years.
In recent speeches, Duncan has laid out four key areas of reform in which applicants must show progress: adopting rigorous academic standards; recruiting and keeping effective teachers; turning around chronically low-performing schools; and building data systems to track student achievement and teacher effectiveness.
"There are lots of things that are going to cause California and all 50 states to think differently about their education system," said Rick Miller, deputy superintendent of public instruction in California. "It fundamentally changes much of what we do."