California's education reforms hand more power to parents

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an education reform bill Thursday that lets California vie for federal 'Race to the Top' grants. The reforms, opposed by teachers' unions, would let parents force changes in failing schools.

By , Staff writer

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    From left, eighth graders Jose Ortiz, Anthony Leon, Caroline Vega and Oasis Massey, listen to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger during his visit to the Rosa Parks Middle School, in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday.
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California is now competitive in President Obama’s national $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” education competition. After six months of bipartisan massaging, hand-wringing, and compromise, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed reform legislation Thursday that will ensure the state can vie for up to $700 million in federal funding for its schools.

But the debate over the reforms – which puts more power in the hands of parents – spilled over into the signing at the Mary McLeod Bethune Middle School in south central Los Angeles. Both teachers unions opposing the reforms and parents groups supporting the bill showed up to make their voices heard.

Mr. Obama created the Race to the Top education fund last year as part of the stimulus bill investment in critical sectors. The fund rewards states that create the conditions for education innovation and reform and improve student outcomes and graduation rates.

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California could not apply for the funds because of an educational “firewall” that kept its students' test scores from being used to evaluate teachers. Two bipartisan measures have cleared away that hurdle and adopted a “parent trigger” that will let 50 percent of parents of students at failing schools demand changes in staff, leadership, and how the school operates. That includes getting the school to close or inviting a charter school to take over from district administrators.

Teachers unions have opposed the legislation, which many say would have been unthinkable before the Race to the Top fund.

But parents' groups have fought back and were very vocal at Wednesday’s signing.

“For too long, schools have been allowed to fail their students, and this allows parents to make schools accountable, and say ‘enough is enough,’ ” said Shirley Ford, lead community organizer for Parent Revolution, the new name for the Los Angeles Parents Union. “Now parents can take control of failing schools with the legal authority to radical change.”

California’s schools have dropped over a 30-year period from ranking No. 1 on many national indicators to below No. 44 on various measures.

Margaret Ford of California State University, who was present at the signing, tried to put critics at ease.

“Many have argued that we are opening up a Pandora’s box here, giving too much control to parents, but precisely the opposite is true,” said Ms. Ford. She says the legislation makes good on promises by former Gov. Gray Davis (D) a decade ago that parents should have more choice in getting their children out of failing schools or forcing change.

“Who better to decide the fate of their children than the parents,” Ford said.

The San Diego Union Tribune, the state’s second largest newspaper, lauded the reforms.

“The governor is quite right. This kind of education reform does represent a great freedom,” it wrote in an editorial. “And it doesn’t just liberate students and parents. It also frees up schools to live up to their potential to meet a new set of higher expectations. We’re confident that will happen, and that the entire state will be better off for having made these changes….”

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