Education reform: California to join Race to the Top rush

States are scrambling to pass education reforms to be eligible for the Obama administration's $4.35 billion in Race to the Top grants. California was set to confirm far-reaching reforms Tuesday.

By , Staff writer

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    Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger shakes hands with eighth grader Daquan Scott, following his remarks at the Rosa Parks Middle School, in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday. Schwarzenegger visited the school where he called on lawmakers to approve a measure he is backing for federal Race to the Top education funding.
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On Tuesday, California legislators were set to pass a major education reform package that a few months ago would have been unthinkable.

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen has called a special session of the legislature to consider education reforms, including a controversial measure to link teacher evaluations to student test scores.

And in December, Michigan lawmakers passed a slew of major education laws that will affect charter schools, teacher accountability and evaluations, and merit pay.

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The reason for the flurry of activity in these and other states: the $4.35 billion in competitive federal Race to the Top grants. States are scrambling to position themselves before the Jan. 19 application deadline.

“Politicians have so much to worry about that the Race to the Top money, and the need of states for additional money, and the deadline of the application have focused their attention in an extraordinary way,” says Jack Jennings, director of the Center on Education Policy in Washington. “You see state laws being changed throughout the country.”

States' stampede for cash

Other states that are still considering new education laws to make them more competitive in Race to the Top include Wisconsin, New York, Alabama, and Maine. And last year, numerous states changed their laws to be friendlier to charter schools or agreed to link teacher evaluations to test scores.

The Department of Education has made it clear that the grants – which will only be doled out to 10 to 20 states in the first round – will go to those states that are aligned with certain priorities, including an openness to charter schools, a willingness to connect student achievement to teacher performance, a commitment to tough standards, improving data collection, and using effective turnaround approaches for failing schools.

With money scarce, the funds have become highly sought, both for the money and the status they could confer in anointing certain states as education leaders.

“I’ve been doing federal education policy for 17 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Charles Barone, director of federal policy for Democrats for Education Reform, an advocacy group that has been tracking states’ efforts. “Usually it’s exactly the opposite: Money gets sent out, and then the federal government tries to compel states to do what they made a commitment to doing.… There’s been more state legislation [around education reform] in the last eight months than there was in the entire seven or eight years of No Child Left Behind, in terms of laws passed.”

California considers the plunge

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pushed the legislature to remove a firewall prohibiting the use of student test scores in evaluating teachers back in October. The new set of reforms that the legislature was expected to approve Tuesday was even more controversial, and includes an open-enrollment measure that would allow students in the lowest-performing schools to apply to other schools anywhere in the state, including in their own district.

It would also give a “parent trigger” provision, in which 50 percent of the parents in a low-performing school could force districts to adopt major reform plans, including closing the school, firing the principal and up to half the teachers, or turning it into a charter.

“This is a groundbreaking and historic new policy,” says Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles group that pushed for the measure, which has been vehemently opposed by teacher unions. “We think this is a 21st century roadmap to transform public education in
America … around what’s good for kids, and not for grownups.”

Just a few weeks ago, Mr. Austin acknowledges, it seemed unlikely the law would be passed, and he says it would have been impossible without the carrot of Race to the Top. (California, given its large size, could receive up to $700 million if its application is successful.)

One size fits all?

Not everyone is happy about the rush to change laws to fit the federal model. Teachers unions in many states, including California, have bitterly opposed the reforms, and some critics question the rush to embrace certain measures – like charter schools and turnaround measures for failing schools – that have little basis in research.

“Good teaching doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and when you put a heavy emphasis on student test scores, then the assumption is that the teacher controls all the factors that go into a successful test score,” says Earl Wiman, president of the Tennessee Education Association, which has opposed the proposal to make student-achievement data a big factor in teacher evaluations.

And having such a top-down notion of what good education reforms need to look like takes away the state-to-state variability that has always been important in education, says Robert Strange, a policy associate with the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Race to the Top assumes the same formula will work in all 50 states,” Mr. Strange says. “Given the fiscal condition of the states, the carrot begins to look a lot more like a stick.”

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