A handful of California school districts have overcome hesitation or distrust from teacher unions to agree on applying for a high-profile, controversial federal grant. Los Angeles Unified, however, has opted to compete for the award without union endorsement, which it could not obtain.
Union participation is required for the applications, which are due Friday.A federal official said that L.A. Unified's submission would be rejected without it.
The funding at stake is from the much-debated Race to the Top program. It is, for the first time, available to individual school districts rather than states. And the debate over applying has become entangled in a national discussion over how best to improve schools.
Many unions are wary of anything associated with Race to the Top, particularly because of requirements that include controversial changes in teacher evaluations, among other things.
The issue of evaluations remains unsettled in many places in California, and Race to the Top requires a commitment to making students' test scores or other measures of academic achievement a "significant factor" in teacher evaluations by 2014.
"Almost all the mid- to larger districts are saying no: San Francisco, Glendale, Oakland, Sacramento, Montebello, Long Beach, Santa Monica, Lancaster all decided it was more trouble than it was worth," said Frank Wells, a spokesman for the California Teachers Assn. "It remains a flawed program."
But the Long Beach and Glendale districts said they would have wanted to take part.
"We will not be applying because our union will not sign off," said Long Beach district spokesman Chris Eftychiou.
Riverside Unified joined with its teachers union in a $30-million application, said David Haglund, the district's director of educational options.
The biggest stumbling block was the teacher-evaluation requirement, said Tim Martin, president of the Riverside City Teachers Assn. The district and union agreed to set up a separate process to develop a system jointly.
"I felt like, 'If not now, when?' " Martin said. "This just seems like a great opportunity for us to work together and see what we can come up with."
Two districts in the Fresno area, Clovis Unified and Sanger Unified, have joined with their unions to submit an application for $20 million for a math program.
A Los Angeles charter school operator, Green Dot Public Schools, has applied for a four-year, $30-million grant for its system of 10,400 students. The organization had already forged a deal to use student test scores in evaluations.
United Teachers Los Angeles leader Warren Fletcher explained his union's opposition by focusing on financial issues, saying Race to the Top is "big on mandates but low on ongoing funding."
But in L.A. at least, such a characterization is false, said L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy. The money would enhance efforts already underway, he said.
L.A. Unified's 150-page application focused in the first of the four years on helping 25,000 students in 35 low-performing middle and high schools. Six of 10 ninth-graders fail to earn enough credits to advance to 10th grade, marking a "critical tipping point" for them, the application said.
"It is simply wrong for the opposition of one organization ... to deny LAUSD the opportunity to funding that would provide tremendous benefits to our students," Deasy wrote in a letter Thursday to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
Education Department officials offered no hope.
"We require the union signature because this challenging work cannot be done at the district level unless everyone is committed and working together," said Assistant Secretary of Education Peter Cunningham.