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California loses bid for federal Race to the Top education grant

August 24, 2010 |  8:45 am

Arne

California has fallen short in its bid to win a controversial federal Race to the Top school-reform grant.

The winners, just confirmed by federal officials, are Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and the District of Columbia.

Had they prevailed, participating California school systems stood to receive as much as $700 million. The Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second-largest school system, was in line for about $120 million; Long Beach Unified would have received at least $18 million.

The Obama administration created the competitive grant program to spur its vision of reform nationwide. A total of $3.4 billion was available.

In California, school districts had pledged to pursue reforms that included linking teacher evaluations to the standardized test scores of their students. The grant application committed them to using this test-score analysis for at least 30% of a teacher's evaluation.

A new evaluation system, however, would need to be negotiated with local teacher unions, and that was by no means automatic. In fact, California representatives were queried about that issue during a 90-minute presentation this month before federal evaluators in Washington, D.C.

The five-member California delegation included L.A. schools chief Ramon C. Cortines and Supt. Christopher J. Steinhauser of Long Beach Unified. Neither teacher union signed the state application nor did either of the two major state teacher unions.

As a result, California lost some points with evaluators, but officials stressed that no single virtue or shortcoming would by itself determine the fate of an application.

The California superintendents told evaluators that they thought they could bring local unions on board, and, if they could not, they were prepared to return federal dollars accordingly. L.A. Unified has moved on that front in the last few days, with union officials signaling a willingness to negotiate over the possible inclusion of test scores as part of a reshaped, multifaceted teacher evaluation.

California's plan focused on strategies favored by the Obama administration, such as placing the most effective educators in struggling schools and improving instruction through the improved use of data.

The state blueprint also embraced the federal endorsement of aggressive remedies, such as replacing the staff at a poorly performing school and converting it to an independently run charter school. Most charters schools are non-union, another arena of discomfort for teacher unions.

In the end, the number of high-quality applications overstretched the available funding, said department spokesman Justin Hamilton. As a result, a few deserving states had to go home empty-handed, he said.

Delaware and Tennessee already had prevailed in a first round, which concluded in March.

Critics have long argued that some states, including California, were too willing to trade the prospect of badly needed, one-time funding for policies that were academically unproven and that could prove prohibitively expensive over the long term.

Still, some unions supported the final product in their states. The efforts in New York and Florida were endorsed by Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers. She praised leaders in those states for being inclusive of teachers. She said such collaboration was missing in California.

California officials were divided on whether to bid a second time, especially because the state had failed to make the finals. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan personally urged Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to try again.

The result was a revamped approach that relied on a core of superintendents who committed to deep and fast changes. But even that wasn't enough.

-- Howard Blume

Photo: LAUSD Supt. Ramon C. Cortines, right, leads U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on a tour of Samuel Gompers Middle School in 2009. Duncan urged Gov. Schwarzenegger to apply again for the federal grant. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times

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