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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.

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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.

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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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