U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Thursday urged California lawmakers to make education reforms or risk falling further behind the rest of the nation and losing out on a slice of $4.3 billion in federal stimulus money.
Duncan met with lawmakers from both parties at the state Capitol as they prepare to debate potential changes to California law. If enacted, some of the reforms would allow the state to compete for federal money under the Obama administration’s $787 billion economic recovery plan.
The Race to the Top competition will reward states that are focused on education reforms. States that agree to expand public charter schools will be first in line for the money, along with those that allow performance pay for teachers based on student achievement, which is currently prohibited in California.
Democratic lawmakers and the state’s two teachers unions, which are major donors to Democratic campaigns, have typically opposed such changes.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called a special session of the Legislature to take up the reforms so California can apply for the money. That session will start sometime after lawmakers finish their regular session next week.
School officials say they need the money after $18 billion in funding cuts to K-12 schools and community colleges over the past two fiscal years.
Speaking before an audience of school children, Duncan said California can choose to dramatically improve its school system or “stay on the sidelines.”
“It’s going to take real courage. It’s going to take real leadership. But at the end of the day, we have to do the right thing by the children here,” he said during a back-to-school rally hosted by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, who started a Sacramento charter high school after retiring from the NBA.
Gov. Highlights Push for Race to the Top Education Reforms at Back-to-School Rally
Schwarzenegger is seeking legislation that will help improve school accountability, recruit high-quality teachers and principals, turn around low-performing schools and provide better data on teacher performance. He supports linking teacher evaluations and pay raises to student test scores.
The politically powerful California Teachers Association has fought many of those proposals in the past, but some of the changes are necessary to compete for the stimulus money unless the Obama administration revises the guidelines, which are not final.
After meeting with Duncan on Thursday, Assembly Speaker Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles, said she was optimistic that Democrats could agree to some reforms.
“I walked away feeling that it’s not necessarily going to be a problem. What was most important to hear is that the secretary and the Obama administration is not trying to force a rigid formula down our throats,” Bass said. “And so given that, I think there’s room (to negotiate).”
The administration has said it will not award money to states that bar student performance data from being linked to teacher evaluations, such as in California, but some lawmakers are optimistic they can change that law while being sensitive to union concerns.
Outside the back-to-school rally Thursday, Duncan told The Associated Press that he is not worried about opposition from the teachers unions or other labor groups.
“I don’t think it’s about bucking anyone. This is about folks working together, and I have a lot of confidence California’s going to do the right thing by children. That’s what this is about,” Duncan said.
He said California is expected to receive at least $9 billion in stimulus funding dedicated to schools, even without the Race to the Top money.
Schwarzenegger urged lawmakers Thursday to put ideology aside and work quickly, despite a host of other pressing issues they are facing, including a possible reduction in the state inmate population, sweeping tax reforms and water policy.
The Republican governor said he needs the education measures on his desk by early October “so we can be totally in sync with the Obama administration and with the vision of our secretary of education.”
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