Facing a fast-approaching deadline, California senators are being asked to back education reforms that give parents and state officials authority to overhaul the state’s worst schools.
The state Senate is scheduled Wednesday to consider a pair of education-reform bills intended to help California qualify for $700 million in competitive federal grants.
“We are not in a position to turn our backs on the potential of $700 million to help kids in high-poverty schools,” said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.
The money is being offered as part of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative and the first deadline is less than two weeks away.
The state Assembly adopted the bills Tuesday night with the slim majority it needed. Senate approval would send the legislative package to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has been pushing lawmakers to act since calling a special session in August.
Schwarzenegger said the measures were needed to ensure California could submit a competitive application for a portion of the $4.3 billion being made available by the federal government.
Lawmakers who support the reforms said the legislation would provide a lifeline to parents and students in California’s poorest-performing school districts.
“It’s bold. It signifies a commitment to President Obama’s call to take drastic steps when our schools are failing,” said Assemblyman Juan Arambula, an independent from Fresno.
The legislation struck a compromise between different versions favored previously by the Assembly and Senate, although it includes controversial provisions on parental rights.
It requires persistently failing schools to make sweeping changes, including the possibility a school could be closed, converted to a charter school, or the principal and half the staff replaced.
Students enrolled in the state’s worst 1,000 schools would be allowed to transfer to a better school. While parents at some of the worst schools would be empowered to petition a school district to turn around a chronically failing school, although the program would be limited to 75 schools.
“I believe that this program abandons our neighborhood schools, the children that live there and the people nearby,” said Assemblyman Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch. “Even worse, it abandons those very schools that are most in need of our help.”
Other lawmakers sided with teachers unions and complained the Legislature was rushing into sweeping reforms that would have lasting consequences for what amounts to a relatively small pot of one-time money. K-12 education will get nearly $36 billion in this year’s general fund budget.
The vote split Assembly Democrats, many of whom supported the reforms and parted with the California Teachers Association, one of the most influential lobbying groups in Sacramento and one of the state Democratic Party’s major financial backers.
Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, voted in favor of the reforms but acknowledged the risk that the state might not get a dime in Race to the Top funding because the money will be awarded on a competitive basis.
“I’m very concerned about how California will fare because one of the requirements is a state demonstrates a commitment to funding education,” she said in an interview after the vote. “It’s difficult to demonstrate that commitment when in our last few years we’ve been cutting.”
Billions of dollars have been cut from K-12 and higher education as the state has faced a continuing fiscal crisis and a steep drop in tax revenue.
Bass said she hoped California, which has 6 million public school students, would be given special consideration for embracing reforms such as parental choice, which were beyond the requirements called for by the Obama administration.
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