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California’s Race To Top Reforms Divide Educators

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Aired 1/25/10

All eyes in public education in San Diego County are on the Race To The Top. That’s the name of President Barack Obama's plan to change the face of education. But Race To The Top reforms are making school officials throughout California uneasy.

— A who's who in California public education filtered into an auditorium at the state capitol on a rainy Friday morning to hear the annual State of Education address given by State Schools Superintendent Jack O'Connell. Race To The Top takes center stage.

California's State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell talks about revamping teacher evaluations during the annual State of Education address in Sacramento on January 22, 2010.
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Above: California's State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell talks about revamping teacher evaluations during the annual State of Education address in Sacramento on January 22, 2010.

“If we win a Race to the top grant, we will use the one-time dollars to tackle some of the most challenging issues that have stymied reforms in the past,” O’Connell said. “Our success will rely on creating new relations between the state and the local educational community.”

Race To The Top is a $5 billion national competition created by the Obama Administration to bring improvements to the nation’s least successful schools. State Senator Gloria Romero of LA pushed hard for last-minute education reforms that would make California eligible to compete for a share of the money.

“This is much bigger than money,” Romero said. “I think the state of education in California is a recognition that while we fight for more resources, we commit ourselves not to spend them in the same old way. It is a new vision for how we do public education in California.”

The $700 million share California might win would help to pay for three reform ideas put forth by Senator Romero. They are developing data systems that link student test scores to teacher performance -- giving parents greater leeway in picking a school, and giving parents the right to petition to turn around a failing school.

State education officials asked California school districts to commit to these reforms by signing the state's Race To The Top application. Only half of the districts signed. Dean Vogel is vice president of the California Teachers Association. He says he's not surprised.

“They're egregious interventions,” Vogel said. “One of them is closing the school down, sending the kids elsewhere. It doesn't speak at all to the dynamics that happen when parents and teachers come together and work collegially. That is what Obama was talking about.”

School districts around San Diego County are refusing to compete for the money because there are too many unanswered questions. For example, how will the state pay for more busing if parents choose to send their kids other districts? How will teacher evaluations change? Critics also say the one-time grant is not enough to support these reforms over the long term.

The San Diego Unified School District is the largest urban school district not to sign the application. San Diego County state senator Denise Moreno-Ducheny applauds the district for thinking twice.

“I think people want the money but when you start to see too many strings that are too odd, or too many hoops to jump through, I think a lot of districts balked,” Moreno-Duchney said. “I think they balked in seeking the money because it will have long-term implications you have to make and no one right now is comfortable in making long term financial commitments when they don’t know how much money they’ll get next year.”

San Diego's refusal to sign onto the state's plan could very well hurt the state's chances in the federal Race To The Top competition. That because federal officials want buy-in from the largest school districts in each state. State Senator Romero says San Diego Unified should be ashamed.

“I think the response from San Diego says more about the internal turmoil within San Diego, how many superintendents have left in the last few years,” Romero said. “I think they can spin whichever way but the bottom line -- they turned their backs on fighting to give California the biggest opportunity possible to fight for valuable dollars and resources.”

But Dean Vogel with the state’s teachers union says lawmakers have turned their backs on schools by not finding ways to increase state revenues to fully fund education.

“No one in Sacramento wants to talk about that. Who is going to start talking about, ‘If you want this you have to pay for it.’”

California should find out if it won Race To The Top grants by spring. That's about the same time another round of the competition begins.

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