California has a new strategy to win a high-profile federal grant for school reform: Three large districts, including Los Angeles Unified, will apply for those competitive dollars.
The state lost out in the first round of competition for a share of the $4.35 billion in Race to the Top grants, held in March. Its application was opposed by about three-fourths of the state's teacher unions, and about half of the school districts also refused to sign on.
In the last few weeks, state leaders have been lobbied by federal officials who have argued that California should not back away from applying for the second round of funding. The Obama administration has made Race to the Top a major initiative aimed at pressuring school districts to adopt many of its favored reforms.
The state was a day or two away from giving up on applying, but Bonnie Reiss, who recently became the governor's education secretary, pushed for the new approach. She also suggested that California hire a consulting firm that earned high marks for helping other states with their applications. Foundations stepped forward to provide the funding.
Another nudge came from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who called Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and implored him not to pull out. Duncan, officials said, told the governor that the state's new strategy would receive due consideration.
It would be "disheartening" if California didn't try again, said Deputy Education Secretary Anthony Miller. He insisted the continued push for reforms that would accompany a new application would be "good for students" whether "you get a Race to the Top dollar or not."
The state's plan would still reach large numbers of students. L.A. Unified alone has 11% of the state's enrollment and more than fives times as many students as Delaware, one of the first-round winners. The Long Beach and Fresno unified school districts would also be included in the application under the new plan.
"We've got to go for it," said L.A. Unified Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, citing an ongoing budget crisis that could result in hundreds of layoffs, program cutbacks and increased class sizes.
Union participation could be crucial for California, which was marked down in the first round for not drawing more support from labor unions and school districts. But some union leaders have said that the amount of money is not large enough — California stands to win as much as $700 million — and that some of the proposed reforms are problematic. They've faulted a federal emphasis on promoting charter schools and on linking teacher evaluations to student test scores.
"We need to find a way the bargaining units could be a part of this," Cortines said. "We'd craft it in such a way that they'd feel comfortable."
A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles, was noncommittal in an interview but earlier expressed opposition to linking teachers' reviews to their students' standardized test results.
In the first round, California ranked 27th in a competition that included 40 states and the District of Columbia. Only two states ultimately prevailed, Delaware and Tennessee, and several backed away from reapplying, judging their prospects to be hopeless.
"Many states were starting to say, ‘We made a lot of really tough decisions and didn't get much credit for strides we made,'" said Hilary McLean, communications director for the California Department of Education. "There is real money at stake. God knows we need it, but can we realistically get over the hurdles? … Is it an exercise in futility?"
California's plan relies on putting forward L.A. Unified as a model and laboratory for reform, along with the Long Beach and Fresno districts. A notable absence on that list is San Diego Unified, the state's second-largest district, which shunned participation in round one.
Long Beach is frequently cited for its leading-edge improvements. Cortines characterized L.A. Unified as a district on the rise, citing its teacher effectiveness task force, efforts to put schools in charge of their own budgets and an initiative to disclose more academic data to the public while also using it to guide teaching as never before.