Schools Vie For Federal Stimulus Money
GLORIA PENNER (Host): Many financially-strapped school districts in California get excited when they heard that the Obama administration will offer billions of dollars in federal grants through the "Race to the Top" education program, but fewer than half of the local school districts in San Diego County have decided to seek the federal money. Here to tell us more about those decisions is KPBS Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis. So Ana, a lot of money available. How much is it?
ANA TINTOCALIS (KPBS Education Reporter): Well, it is a lot. When you take a look at it nationally, the "Race to the Top" funds will put out at least $5 billion. And this is in the form of competitive grants. What that means for California, if California does move forward, puts its hat in the ring, and by all indications, it will ... And if it's picked, it stands to receive $700 million. So that's how much money we're talking about.
PENNER: But there are some requirements, aren't there? That the school districts have to agree to to get the money? What are they?
TINTOCALIS: Absolutely. So the federal government is dangling all this money in front of states and school districts, but they say, if you want this money, you have to take on some major education reforms. So, those reforms are very controversial. Teachers' unions don't necessarily like some of the changes. So, some of the provisions are that you have to change the way that you evaluate your teachers. So the idea is that you will link teacher evaluations to student test scores. And of course, teachers don't like that. They say there are other factors that feed into a students' performance. Another provision is that state officials can go into a struggling school and fire almost the entire staff, remove the principal and put in new people.
PENNER: That's a lot of power.
TINTOCALIS: It's a lot of power and also, they're giving parents more power. Parents can petition to turn around a failing school. And they also will get greater lee-way in pulling a student out of a struggling school. And picking and chosing the school of their choice to enroll their child in.
PENNER: Major changes. You can see how sensitive some of those are. So now, we have local school districts some are planning to apply, and some aren't. How many are saying that they would like to go after this federal money?
TINTOCALIS: In San Diego County, we have about 42 school districts.
PENNER: 42? I didn't realize we had that many.
TINTOCALIS: They're big and small. But, only about 20 school districts in our county are tossing their hat in the ring, and saying, yes we agree to these major education reforms, we want the money. We're going to apply. The others are not.
TINTOCALIS: Well, and there are a lot of reasons for that. A lot of education officials who don't want this money, don't like the reforms that are attached to it, plain and simple. I think that's one of the big issues. But also, they say, there's a lot of strings attached to this money. And those strings are not even clearly definied yet. They don't know how these changes will impact their schools in the long-run. It is one-time money, so if you do put forward all these reforms it might become unfunded mandates in the end. For the long term, how are these reforms going to be funded. And I think lastly, there's a question of whether or not this is good for children.
PENNER: Well, you know, one of the things I found interesting, is that San Diego Unified is the only big school district in California that won't go after this first batch of money. Are their reasons similar to the other reasons, you know, some sensitivity to the reforms that are being required?
TINTOCALIS: Well, when you took a look at all the school districts in the state that are interested in getting this money and taking on these reforms. It was quite apparent that San Diego Unified was missing from that list. San Diego Unified is the second largest school district in this state. So you had San Franscisco, Los Angeles, Long Beach, the other big city school districts signing on, but San Diego Unified absent. They haven't really.. they haven't had a news conference to say, this is why we're sitting out. They haven't really had a meeting to say these are our reasons. They are getting some backlash. The reasons are those that I indicated before. They say, they're are a lot of unanswered questions, they're not sure if this is a good fit for the district. The president of the schoool board, Richard Barrera said this week, "We don't believe in necessarily that federal and state reforms from the top to the bottom are necessarily good for our district. We want to go to the struggling schools in our district. Find out what parents, teachers, and principals have to say. Our reforms will be guided by what the school communities say-- not what is being pressured by the federal and state government."
PENNER: That's interesting. So, he sees it as pressure rather than an opportunity to fill in some of the tens of thousands of dollars that the district needs. The district is crying poor.
TINTOCALIS: And they are getting backlash, because another reason why they say they might be sitting out is because by their estimates only eight struggling schools would really benefit from the money they stand to get. They stand to get about $1 to $2 million over a four-year period. About 2500 students go to these eight struggling schools. Their argument is that there's not enough schools that could benefit from this money. But, folks on the outside say, "whatever money you can get, get it. Why are you turning your back on these struggling schools?"
PENNER: Just very quickly, Ana, you said there was no press conference about this decision. So have they gotten any response from parents?
TINTOCALIS: Lately, they have been getting more response in the form of folks going to school board meetings and staging their own press conferences and saying, "what's going on here?" The San Diego Organizing Project, which is a faith-based community organization finally took the board to task, went to the school board meeting and said, "Listen, you are turning your back on these kids, and we don't have a clear explanation for why."