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L.A. teachers union rejects contest for federal school-reform grant

May 28, 2010 |  7:56 pm

The Los Angeles teachers union won’t sign the state’s application for federal Race to the Top school-reform grants, diminishing the state’s chances of claiming up to $700 million in grants tied to specific, but controversial reform strategies.

The grant has the potential to bind the state to future policies that would cost the state more than the one-time dollars would pay for, said A.J. Duffy, president of United Teachers Los Angeles. He added that the extra costs could strain school district finances and ultimately result in damaging budget cuts.

California fell short during the first round of competition for a share of the $4.35 billion in federal grants, but tried again at the urging of U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and developed a new strategy. A few school districts would pursue reforms more specific and more aggressive than in the original state submission.

The approach was a calculated gamble because federal evaluators rewarded plans that reached as many students in a state as possible. The two winning states — Tennessee and Delaware — scored high marks for doing so.

A handful of school districts, including Los Angeles Unified and Long Beach Unified, expressed early interest. The number of school systems has since swelled to 123, along with dozens of independently operated charter schools. These school systems represent more than 1.7 million of the state’s 6.3 million students. That’s more students than in all but six other states. Unions in 17 districts also signed on.

But other unions followed the lead of the California Teachers Assn. and nonunion critics in opposing the effort, including the unions representing San Franciso Unified and Long Beach Unified, according to state documents.

L.A. schools Supt. Ramon C. Cortines said the money would help pay for reforms that L.A. Unified already was pursuing. These include revamping the teacher evaluation system, making better use of data to improve instruction and turning around struggling schools.

Duffy, however, characterized the required blueprint as vague on key points and overly prescriptive on others.

“We agree we need a new evaluation system, no question about it,” Duffy said. “But this money requires the evaluation system of teachers to be tied to standardized test scores and there’s too much solid evidence to show this is not effective.”

The union's leadership made the decision not to take part in Race to the Top on behalf of the membership.

The state will formally sign its application Tuesday -- the federal deadline -- at an elementary school in Long Beach. Expected participants include Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell.

“We feel like we’ve put together a strong application that puts together the best thinking of some progressive district leaders,” said education department spokeswoman Hilary McLean. “We’re hopeful the federal government will recognize the innovative ideas we’ve put forth.”

--Howard Blume

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