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Districts refusing reforms could hurt California's chances for grant money

The state hopes to win up to $700 million in Race to the Top funds. But a large portion of districts and teachers unions eschew California's proposed changes and refuse to sign its grant application.

February 17, 2010|By Jason Song

A large number of California school districts and teachers unions have refused to accept education reforms being pushed by the Obama administration, and that could hamper the state's chances of winning hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants, some officials fear.

The money would come from a $4.3-billion set of competitive school-improvement grants that Washington plans to begin awarding to states this spring under the administration's Race to the Top program. California officials are hoping to win up to $700 million of that money.

Federal officials have outlined four main areas of reform to be considered in awarding Race to the Top grants: more sophisticated data systems to track student progress, common education standards, intervention in low-achieving schools, and improved efforts to train teachers and principals.

But a majority of California school districts and about three-quarters of its teachers unions, as well as some charter schools and other education agencies, have declined to sign agreements that require them to abide by those changes.

"It's not what I would have hoped for," said state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), who sponsored legislation aimed at qualifying California for the federal money.

Many states amended or rewrote education laws to meet the administration's reform agenda. In California, this included a change that was vigorously opposed by unions and others: linking teacher evaluations to their students' test scores.

States will be judged on a 500-point scale, and federal officials have said that only a few will get funding, although there will be a second round this year. Nearly 10% of the total score depends on securing commitments from school districts.

It will be up to the states to distribute the money, but only districts that have agreed to participate will receive a share. Winning states will be notified in April.

California does have some advantages going into the competition. Ten states, including Texas and Washington, didn't apply for the first round. And some states with a high level of participation from districts and unions don't embrace key reforms encouraged by the Obama administration, according to some experts. Every school district in Kentucky, for example, agreed to participate in reforms, but legislators there did not approve a plan to allow charter schools, a key component of Race to the Top.

Some California officials say they are comfortable with the level of participation in the state, pointing out that the districts that have signed agreements serve nearly 60% of the state's students.

"Based on what I've seen, it makes us highly competitive," said Rick Miller, deputy state superintendent for education.

Some parts of California's application could set it apart, especially since legislators voted to take down a firewall between test score data and teacher identities, and gave parents the ability to demand that low-performing schools be taken over.

"A few months ago, no one was talking about California having a chance," said Andy Smarick, an education expert with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute in Washington, D.C.

That changed when the state Senate and Assembly approved legislation that met the administration's requirements. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who had made the state's Race to the Top application a priority, signed those bills into law last month.

Federal officials have declined to handicap California's chances of receiving a grant. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said that states with weak applications will not boost their chances even if they have a high percentage of districts signed on.

Teachers unions have been leery of California's Race to the Top application from the beginning, primarily because of the link between teacher evaluations and student achievement data. Union leaders have argued that the state's standardized tests are too flawed to be used for high-stakes decisions.

After the application was approved, the powerful California Teachers Assn. sent an e-mail to local unions, urging them not to sign.

"It was extremely vague and had very serious problems," said David Sanchez, president of the 340,000-member group.

San Diego Unified, the state's second-largest district, came to a similar conclusion. District officials refused to sign on, even though that made the district ineligible for grant money.

"The state was asking the district to sign onto something that's completely undefined," said Richard Barrera, the San Diego school board president.

Barrera said he was also concerned that San Diego Unified officials would lose flexibility and instead be obligated to follow directives from state lawmakers if California won a grant.

"It's a bad idea for folks in Sacramento to make education decisions in San Diego," he said.

Education officials, however, say there could be a two-tiered system with some school districts complying and others continuing to operate as usual.

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