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L.A. Unified can apply for federal Race to the Top funds

For the first time, the U.S. Department of Education will let districts bypass state officials. L.A. Unified wants funds to alter the teacher evaluation process.

May 23, 2012|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times
  • Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. John Deasy.
Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. John Deasy. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles…)

For the first time, L.A. Unified and other individual school districts can apply for federal Race to the Top grants, bypassing California officials, including the governor, who had objected to the rules for receiving the education-reform incentives.

The draft rules, announced Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Education, will allow school systems to vie for funds that had been unavailable to any state that was unable or unwilling to compete for the grants.

"We're wide open to new strategies, new approaches," said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a conference call. "Every district in America can apply."

Race to the Top was launched by the U.S. Department of Education under President Obama in 2009. It was intended to spur states into adopting education policies favored by the administration, including revamping teacher evaluations to include student test score data. Three times California applied and lost.

Most recently, in 2011, senior state officials took California out of the running: They declined to endorse an application submitted by a consortium of districts, including those in L.A., Long Beach, San Francisco and Sacramento.

The money was too little to pay for what was required, a particular burden during the current budget crisis, according to state Supt. of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, Gov. Jerry Brown and other officials. But there also were philosophical objections to using student test scores as one measure to evaluate teachers.

The largest state teachers unions also have opposed using this data in performance reviews, unless teachers approve it as part of a collective bargaining agreement.

In 2010, the state's first application was weakened by the unwillingness of some teachers unions and school districts to sign on.

The new guidelines for the $400-million pool include the requirement that districts remake teachers evaluations. In Los Angeles Unified, schools Supt. John Deasy is moving in that direction.

"We intend to apply," Deasy said. "We've been waiting for this. We're ready for this. Everything we've done has laid the groundwork for a strong application."

If successful, L.A. could receive $25 million, much less than the $100 million the district could have obtained in an earlier funding round.

Still, the money would prove valuable for advancing such district initiatives as an evaluation system now being tested by volunteers in some schools.

Deasy is planning to expand the program districtwide, but faces a legal challenge by United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers union.

UTLA could play a role in the Race to the Top bid.

"Local buy-in," including from teachers unions, "and commitment to reform is very important," Duncan said.

Stanford education professor Linda Darling-Hammond believes the emphasis is misplaced.

"Evaluation is actually a tiny aspect of the entire puzzle," Darling-Hammond said at a talk Monday to teachers and union activists at the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools in Koreatown. "The big issue for the U.S. is inequality." The nation has "continually disinvested in schools that serve children who live in poverty."

A contrasting view appeared in a report released Tuesday by Communities for Teaching Excellence, a locally based organization funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The report called for linking improved evaluations — including the use of student data — to decisions on whether teachers should receive and retain tenure protections.

The group saluted recent changes to tenure laws in other states. In Tennessee, teachers now must work five years to earn tenure; California teachers earn tenure after two years. Tennessee teachers also must rank in the top two of five categories for overall performance in the two years before achieving tenure. And teachers can lose tenure if they are rated ineffective for two consecutive years.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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