California's public schools, which are laying off thousands of teachers and planning for shortened academic years, received the painful news Thursday that they will not get a federal Race to the Top grant in the first round of funding. The decision isn't surprising, though. The legislation that formed the backbone of the state's application lacked coherence and a real commitment to improving conditions at the lowest-performing schools.
We don't yet know why U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan turned down California's application. But from our perspective, what the schools needed were rules allowing district administrators, not union contracts, to determine which teachers should work at specific campuses, so that urban schools with mostly poor, minority students would be staffed by excellent educators. When layoffs were necessary, schools needed the best and most committed teachers to stay, not the ones with the most seniority. We already have detailed how the rigid layoff system has left many students at Markham Middle School in Watts with rotating substitute teachers. Nor did lawmakers address the need for common-sense procedures for firing bad teachers.
What the legislation accomplished instead was open enrollment -- a chance for students at low-performing schools to enroll in other districts. This should work well for the relatively small number of students whose parents have the resources to find a district with open seats, handle the application process and then get their children to and from those schools each day. It does little for the students left behind. Impoverished communities want and deserve better schools in their own neighborhoods.
The legislation also allowed a small-scale "parent trigger" by which parents could initiate radical change at up to 75 schools -- a switch to charter management or replacement of staff -- if a majority signed a petition. It's an intriguing idea, but it favors schools with more educated, involved parents rather than those most in need of change.
Unlike Colorado, which built its Race to the Top application in concert with districts and teachers -- and which made it to the list of finalists -- California got relatively little support from school districts, fewer than half of which signed on to the application. That didn't help the state's chances.
We hope Duncan credited California for its already progressive charter school laws and relatively high academic standards. But in the absence of meaningful help for the students who most need it, the federal government is right to demand more.