Published Online: December 2, 2009
Updated: April 4, 2012

Lure of 'Race to Top' Splits California Lawmakers

Leaders in California are still at odds over what new policies and school improvement efforts they must embrace to make the state a strong contender for some of the $4 billion being offered in federal Race to the Top Fund grants as the deadline to apply closes in.

With up to $700 million in economic-stimulus money on the line in the cash-starved state, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, and a bipartisan group of state lawmakers are pushing to lift California’s cap on charter schools and to make it easier for parents to move their children out of low-performing schools, among other measures.

But some Democratic lawmakers in the Assembly, who are the majority in that house of the legislature, along with the two state teachers’ unions and organizations that represent school board members and administrators, have so far declined to support the governor’s legislation.

Late last month, Julia Brownley, the chairwoman of the Assembly’s education committee, said she was working to write new legislation that would “successfully position ourselves and address the final regulations” of the Race to the Top competition and present it as a bill or package of bills for a vote by mid-December.

More than 6 million children attend California’s public schools, which have endured unprecedented budget cuts during the state’s ongoing fiscal meltdown. Race to the Top grants are the largest discretionary pool of money for education under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic-stimulus package passed by Congress in February.

Mr. Schwarzenegger, who called a special legislative session on education in September, favors legislation passed in early November by the Democratic-controlled state Senate and has repeatedly urged the Assembly to act on the bill. Earlier this fall, the governor signed into law a measure to rid the state of its so-called data firewall that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had said would keep student test scores from being used to evaluate teachers, and would disqualify the nation’s largest state from even competing for the Race to the Top grant money.

“The clock is ticking,” said Glen W. Thomas, the state secretary of education, who serves as the governor’s top education adviser. “Some of the things we want to do may not be technically required, but they are philosophically consistent with [Race to the Top], and we want to not only be eligible, we want to be competitive.”

Seeking Buy-In

The Race to the Top grants are intended to reward states for making progress on certain education redesign principles embedded in the stimulus law. The application deadline for the first round of grants is in January.

Ms. Brownley has pledged to write legislation that would not only make California competitive for the federal grant funds, but that would also garner support from the state’s “education coalition,” which includes the 340,000-member California Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association.

Buy-in from key education interests, including school districts and teachers’ unions, is an important factor in the Race to the Top competition under the final guidelines that were released last month.

“We will put forward a bill that will specifically address the final regulations in Race to the Top, with a close focus on the [U.S. Department of Education’s] scoring rubric,” said Ms. Brownley, who is from the Los Angeles area and is a former school board member. “We want to put our best foot forward, and doing that, I think, requires getting all of the stakeholders to buy in to what we are doing.”

Ms. Brownley, whose committee has hosted a series of hearings around the state on Race to the Top, declined to disclose any details about what improvement provisions her legislation would include. The committee might hear the legislation as soon as Dec. 9, she said.

“We want to respond to this in a thoughtful way for California,” she said, “not only in the short term, which is what Race to the Top is leveraging, but also for the longer term.”

Fiscal Crisis

Underscoring the debate is California’s wrecked economy.

Gov. Schwarzenegger has argued that the state’s dire fiscal conditions make urgent an application for the Race to the Top money, which will likely go to only a handful of states. The governor learned late last month that he will face a projected deficit of $21 billion, out of a state budget of roughly $103 billion, in fiscal 2010, just four months after piecing together a budget that carved deeply into core state services, including K-12 schooling. The state’s top budget analyst is also projecting deficits of $20 billion or more through fiscal 2013.

But with the maximum Race to the Top award for California pegged at $700 million, others have been arguing that the sum, while generous, is small relative to the more than $15 billion in state spending cuts to K-12 and isn’t worth the risk of rushing into education policy changes that could prove ill-conceived.

“The money would be nice because of our budget situation,” said Erika Hoffman, a lobbyist for the California School Boards Association. “But this is one-time money. Where are we going to get the money to sustain anything that we start?”

With each governor pegged as the leader of his or her state’s Race to the Top effort, some Californians say they are frustrated that they haven’t seen a concrete reform plan put forth by Gov. Schwarzenegger, whose team is also working with the elected state schools superintendent, Jack O’Connell, and the appointed state board of education.

“We don’t really know who is really in charge of putting together a plan, much less what the plan is,” said Ms. Hoffman. The Senate bill that Gov. Schwarzenegger supports, she said, “presents some very large policy challenges for school districts.”

Several local superintendents in California, however, have officially endorsed the governor’s approach.

“How can I possibly say that we shouldn’t compete as a state for this money?” said Joyce Bales, the superintendent of the 25,000-student Vista Unified School District, a northern San Diego County system where 56 percent of the children qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

“We’ve got low-performing schools to turn around,” she said, “and teachers that are working hard to be better for our students. We need this money to help us do that.”

Vol. 29, Issue 14

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