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L.A. schools fail to gain union backing for grant application

The L.A. teachers union declined to sign LAUSD's bid for a $40-million grant, a condition for the competition imposed by the federal education department.

October 29, 2012|By Howard Blume, Los Angeles Times

An effort by the Los Angeles Unified School District to win a high-profile $40-million grant has unraveled after the L.A. teachers union declined to sign the application, a condition for the competition imposed by the federal education department.

The dollars were modest compared to the school system's multibillion-dollar annual budget, but school district officials said the Race to the Top grant could have provided critical services as well as additional jobs.

"I'm disappointed," said L.A. schools Supt. John Deasy. "It's a shame that we won't be able to provide this support for students and hire the staff."

Deasy could submit an application anyway, but said federal rules for the money required a written commitment to the terms of the grant by the local teachers union.

Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast resulted in an extension of the Oct. 30 application deadline, but "I've been told that we're done," said Deasy, recounting his last contact Monday with the union.

In the end the main sticking point was financial, said Warren Fletcher, president of United Teachers Los Angeles. He noted that similar grants to states have committed officials to efforts that cost more than the grants provided.

He said the district's $43.3-million proposal seemed headed in the same direction.

The end result, he said, could have been future cutbacks in classroom teachers and services to students.

"There was greater risk than likely reward," he said.

Deasy has countered that, in fact, the money would have supported efforts already underway. He said private donations would have made up for any costs beyond the grant award.

L.A. Unified's 150-page application focused in the first year 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.

The district proposed personalized learning plans aided by digital tablets, summer school, learning projects linked to careers, anti-dropout counseling and other services.

The Race to the Top grant program was extended from states to individual school districts for the first time this year. The U.S. Department of Education established a $400-million pool of funding. About 15 to 25 awards, in the range of $5 million to $40 million, will be distributed as four-year grants.

California failed to win earlier state competitions in part because many unions declined to support the effort.

All along, union officials in California have objected to some of the federal conditions, in particular that students' test scores or other measures of academic achievement be a "significant factor" in teacher evaluations by 2014.

The L.A. union has vociferously asserted that state standardized test scores are an inaccurate measure of teacher performance, but Fletcher said that issue wasn't the fatal flaw.

He noted that the district and union already are negotiating over terms of a teacher evaluation that, under state law, must incorporate test scores. The negotiations are taking place with a mediator under a court order.

Deasy said he was willing to agree in writing that the grant application would not be used as leverage in these negotiations.

Still, Fletcher said he was concerned that the grant would set in stone potentially problematic practices. It would be better, he said, for officials, principals (through their union) and teachers to reach consensus on how best to move forward.

howard.blume@latimes.com

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