California takes second shot at federal education money

After losing in the first round, Governor Schwarzenegger has again applied for federal dollars through the “Race to the Top” initiative hoping to secure $700 million for California’s public school system. The Governor staged a public signing of the application in Long Beach, California.

As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (aka federal stimulus package), the Obama Administration allotted $4.3 billion in federal aid, designed as a competitive program intended to make education reforms in the public schools.  In the first round, 16 states were chosen as finalists. California was not one of them. Only Delaware and Tennessee have been awarded grants under the program.

Unlike the first application that sought funding for the entire state, this application included just seven school systems – San Francisco, Sacramento, Clovis, Fresno, Sanger, Long Beach and Los Angeles – representing nearly 27 percent of the state’s 6.3 million children attending public school. 300 other school districts have pledged their commitment to implementing “Race to the Top” reforms.

While the $700 million is not expected to make a dent in the state’s budget deficit, it may help ease the pain of the 12 percent cuts in K-12 funding during the past three years. And if proven successful, California may be eligible for additional funding.

The Governor signed the application at Lafayette Elementary School in Long Beach because of the successful reforms the school system has implemented. Regarding the application itself, the Governor said, “Our plan meets every goal set forth by President Obama’s Race to the Top. It helps ensure that we have effective teachers in every classroom, and it gives us more tools to turn around failing schools.”

Praising Lafayette, the Governor continued, “And it makes better use of the data systems to measure student (academic) growth. This is no different than what they have here at Lafayette. They have a great model right here.” The Long Beach Unified School District (LBUSD) hopes to receive 10s of millions of federal dollars.

It remains unclear why California’s first application was rejected. However, in the current application, it evaluates teachers and principals, places effective teachers in low performing schools, and makes better use of data to measure student progress.

However, the Long Beach Board of Education has not signed on to the agreement, wanting more time to review the content and specifically citing concerns over some of the mandates in the program.  In fact, many schools within the districts that crafted the application have refused to apply.

As reported in the Contra Costa Times, Elsa Valdez, board member of San Bernardino City Unified, stated that, “There are too many strings attached to the funding that are very punitive in nature. One of the biggest drawbacks is grading the teachers on how well students do in the classroom. It seems like one size fits all, and to use it as a cornerstone is a disservice to our students and teachers.”

The second round of semi-finalists will be announced in July, and the finalists in late August or early September.