California Passes Reforms to Compete in Race to the Top

California started the year by passing two new bills and submitting an application to the federal government to win a piece of the funding pie known as Race to the Top.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) signed both bills into law on January 7. Both had passed the legislature with the minimum number of votes needed. The legislation was needed to ensure California meets as much of the Race to the Top criteria as possible before the state sent its application to the Obama administration by the January 19 deadline.

“We have to do what’s best for the children, not what’s best for the grownups,” Schwarzenegger said during the signing ceremony.

Reforming Poor Schools

The two bills, introduced January 4, put California in the running for up to $700,000 of the $4.35 billion the Obama administration plans to dole out this year to states with student-centered laws, such as allowing charter schools and using merit pay for teachers. The bills–originally one piece of legislation–were broken into two, with each contingent on the other passing.

SBX5 1, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tem Derrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), authorizes the use of long-term student data to evaluate individual teachers’ effectiveness. It also creates alternative routes for credentialing teachers, particularly in math and the sciences, and establishes processes for reforming persistently low-achieving schools.

The schools identified as the state’s persistently lowest-performing will be required to participate in a mentoring program with high-achieving schools, to help the poor ones improve.

Parent Triggers

A firestorm of controversy surrounded the other piece of legislation, SBX5 4. Sponsored by state Sens. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) and Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) since last August, the bill holds significant reform potential in its unique “parent triggers.”

The new law holds if 51 percent of parents in any of the lowest-performing districts petition, the school board must hold a public meeting and vote for one of four reform measures: completely closing the school, converting it to a charter school, replacing administrators and 50 percent of the staff, or changing the school’s instruction style and curriculum.

Other provisions create an open-enrollment process for persistently low-performing schools.

Though Schwarzenegger supported the bill, the state’s education unions–including the California Teachers Association, California Federation of Teachers, California School Boards Association, and Association of School Administrators–lobbied hard against it. As a result, only 75 schools statewide will be eligible to reform by parental request, and the open-enrollment options would be implemented in only 1,000 schools. More than 2,800 California schools currently are failing to meet federal standards.

Parent Power

The new Los Angeles-based organization Parent Revolution is a strong advocate of the parent trigger.

“It’s an entirely new way of thinking about public education. It’s about giving parents real power to advocate for their children,” said Ben Austin, the group’s executive director.

For California to be more competitive against other states in the Race to the Top grant competition, local schools must agree to participate in implementing the reforms. Last December the state sent a memorandum of understanding to each school district and charter school so they could decide by January 8 whether they would participate. Nearly 5,000 of the 9,800 traditional and charter schools statewide agreed to do so.

“We are now asking local education agencies to collaborate with the state and with each other in unprecedented ways,” State Superintendent Jack O’Connell said at the bill-signing ceremony of his office’s efforts to get more schools on board. “Race to the Top represents our state’s best chance to engage in the fundamental reforms that are needed to develop our workforce and fuel future innovations.”

District Concerns

Many school districts feared signing the agreement because of the national standards and uncertainty about how the reforms will be implemented if California is not one of the 10 to 15 states receiving federal funding the in first wave of grants.

“It was decided after analyzing the situation that there just wasn’t enough information to understand the program, its implications, and its expectations,” Stephen Rosenthal, superintendent of the Shoreline and Nicasio school districts–two of six in Marin County that declined to sign the agreement–told the Marin Independent Journal for a January 22 story. “It didn’t feel smart to sign up for something we didn’t really understand.”

Mere ‘Illusion of Choice’

Despite the politics in the process, many education reformers are optimistic about what the future holds for California now that these bills are law. Charles Barone, director of federal policy for Democrats for Education Reform, told the Christian Science Monitor for a January 5 article, “There’s been more state legislation [around education reform] in the last eight months than there was in the entire seven or eight years of No Child Left Behind, in terms of laws passed.”

Lance Izumi, senior director of education studies for the Pacific Research Institute, disagreed. “The bill only creates the illusion of choice. What it purposely omits is any provision to allow parents to keep their tax dollars and transfer their students out of public schools and into private schools–school choice or vouchers.”

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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