From left, Ted Mitchell, then-president of the California board of education,… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
California and eight other states are in line to receive a consolation prize after falling short in the widely publicized "Race to the Top" competition for federal school-reform grants. The belated funding, as much as $50 million for the Golden State, would recognize the quality of California's plan but with a potential reward that would be a fraction of the payoff received by earlier recipients.
Federal officials also announced a new competition Wednesday for grants from a $500-million fund established to promote early childhood education. This opportunity arises as the Los Angeles Unified School District is poised to slash funding to such programs amid an ongoing budget crisis.
The Race to the Top dollars would go to state finalists that fell short in two previous rounds.
"We had many more competitive applications than we had funds to award," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. "Every state that applied … has a blueprint for raising educational quality across America. These funds will encourage states to continue their courageous work to challenge the status quo."
To claim the money, California must scale back its most recent plan, for which it could have received $700 million. The revised proposal must pass muster with federal officials, and there could be complications.
The new state schools superintendent, Tom Torlakson, strongly opposed provisions of the state's first Race to the Top application. And pending legislation could restrict the future expansion of charter schools, a limitation that federal officials oppose.
"That would clearly put us in a disadvantageous position to compete for those federal dollars," said Jed Wallace, who heads the California Charter Schools Assn.
On the other hand, a group of seven school systems, including L.A. Unified and Long Beach Unified, has already pushed forward with measures outlined in the state's second, nearly successful application.
The districts are planning the looming shift to national curriculum standards recently adopted by California. The federal application also had included a commitment to using student test-score data as part of teachers' evaluations, among other elements.
"The bottom line is that we can't do this just for the money, and we shouldn't," said Long Beach Supt. Christopher J. Steinhauser. "We need to do these reforms based on what's best for students."
The early education grants drew an enthusiastic response from advocates; such programs have fallen under the budget knife in many financially strapped school systems.
"At the very least, it dangles a big carrot in front of state policymakers, who may be prone to forget the long-term payoff that comes from making investments in early childhood programs," said Lisa Guernsey, director of the Early Education Initiative at the Washington, D.C.-based New America Foundation.