How legislators can make reforms last when Race to the Top money is gone
The race among states is on for $700 million in federal education Race to the Top funds and as the January 19 application deadline approaches two bills in Sacramento are in play. In order to make California competitive for the federal grants the Assembly introduced ABX5 8 last Thursday. The bill is scheduled to be heard today. The Senate introduced SBX5 1 last August, which the Assembly will consider later this month.
The purpose of the Race to the Top competitive grants is to reform education through enhancing standards and assessments, improving data collection and use, increasing teacher and principal effectiveness, and turning around struggling schools. Each state’s application will be graded on a 500-point system from the federal Department of Education.
The competition requires states to be involved in the national discussion on the Common Core State Standard Initiative, a drive by states to establish voluntary national standards. ABX5 8, however, threatens to dilute California’s rigorous academic content standards. The bill requires the state superintendent of public instruction to adopt new standards based predominantly on the yet-to-be-determined set of standards adopted by the other states. California could be forced to adhere to this new set of standards even if they are weaker than the current state standards in the core subjects.
The most controversial issue, with the most points at 28 percent, is teacher and principal evaluations. Both the Senate and Assembly bills encourage schools to use student testing data for teacher and principal evaluations, which unions oppose. Yet, there is no guarantee that school districts will put student testing data to proper use.
Another key aspect of the application is the requirement for turning around five percent of the lowest-achieving schools. This portion, worth only 10 percent of points, is a crucial step towards improving education. Both bills allow the school boards to choose one of the four methods the federal act established for turning schools around: closing, establishing new governance, staff replacement, or transformation by changing curriculum and teaching philosophies.
If enacted, ABX5 8 requires governing boards of persistently low-achieving schools to hold public hearings and may participate in a school-to-school model mentor program. On the other hand, SB5x 1 gives schools that fall into the lowest-achieving category a chance for their students to choose another school regardless of the district in which the student lives.
The governor supports SBX5 1, which overall moves reforms through parental choice and involvement, encourages growth of good charter schools, and increases pathways for qualified teachers and administrators. ABX5 8, contrary to the intent of the reforms hinders choice and limits good charter school growth.
For instance, under ABX5 8 for current charter school operators to replicate a new school, the operator would be denied if they previously operated another school that had not been renewed after three years. Such action would limit the expansion of schools that have been undeniably successful, such as replications of American Indian Public Charter. While the bill does remove the charter cap from 1,350 to unlimited—as of now there are 809 charter schools in California – it adds restrictions on charter school enrollment demographics, audit practices, and innovation.
According to the Governor’s press release, ABX5 8 “doesn’t completely embrace the reform culture that President Obama has charged states to adopt.”
Legislation should not only look to top-heavy mandates but give parents the choice in schools. Opening school districts to all students increases improvements in neighboring schools in the long-term while improving the life of individual students in the short-term. Legislators should keep in mind that Race to the Top funds, like education spending in general, is not the magic bullet for success.
The prospects for improved student achievement will be enhanced by expanding accountability and choice. All parents want the best for their child and only by allowing families to be engaged through choice and competition will reforms last even when the funding has subsided.
Evelyn B. Stacey is an education policy fellow at the Pacific Research Institute, in Sacramento.