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Race to the Top -- Buyers Beware

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Every American leader, from Barack Obama to Arnold Schwarzenegger, would agree that if there's one lifelong lesson to be learned from the implosion of the housing market, it is that before you sign on the dotted line, you'd better know what you're getting yourself into. You'd better ask clarifying questions. You'd better read the fine print. And you'd better make absolutely sure that there are no hidden clauses or trap doors that take you and those dependent on you to the dog house.

While our local districts are comprised of well intentioned, highly educated and reflective leaders who are doing their best to find resources to fill the budget shortfall, we are perplexed that some districts agreed to submit a "Memorandum Of Understanding" with the Governor's Office to participate in California's application for the federal Race to the Top (RTTT) competitive grant program. Many of our local teachers' associations hope that since more than half (60%) of school systems in California did not sign on to the State's MOU, that there is change in the RTTT program language so that district leaders, teachers, parents and stakeholders can work together with their local districts to come up with solutions that are based in research-supported strategies for all.

Earlier this month the governor signed California's RTTT legislation that includes: promoting national education standards, using test scores to evaluate and compensate teachers and principals, lifting a cap on charter schools, and allowing parents to transfer their children out of the state's lowest performing schools -- while providing no provision for transportation costs -- leaving this last piece a true hollow victory for parents.

The critical issue for many districts was that the state decided (although not required by the feds) that local districts comply with all aspects of RTTT and the resulting and yet unwritten State Plan. The feds required that LEAs must comply with most of the significant portions of the RTTT (however even this is ambiguous). Moreover, it also came down to whether local boards could trust the state and federal bureaucracies to release them from the MOU if districts opted out at a later date or if they didn't meet all of the benchmarks mandated and if released, whether they would have to pay back any disbursed grant funds. The RTTT initiative provides $4.5 billion nationally for qualifying states. California may be eligible for up to $700 million. Based on projected estimates, for many districts this would mean eligibility to receive one-time funds equaling about 1-2% of the average operating budget over the next two to four years. So while the RTTT has been "sold" as a major game-changing investment or "bailout" of public schools, local school districts know better.

So while Wall Street was given hundreds of billions of dollars with little to no conditions, schools are offered a fraction of the Wall Street monies with restrictive and costly mandates. Is not public education too big and too important to fail? All this said, districts were left questioning whether this money was a big enough carrot for large scale reform required of RTTT.

In a statement released by the Anaheim City School District Board in explaining its rejection of the MOU, the Board emphasized that although it supports many of the initiatives and principles embedded in RTTT, "ultimately the Board cited its concerns regarding the risks of signing on to a State Education Plan for RTTT that has yet to be written. This fact created many "unknowns" as to what the Board was being asked to commit to and, because the funds are one-time dollars, the Board expressed deep concerns regarding mandated, ongoing costs. While submitting an MOU would have resulted in modest funding, the RTTT requires Districts to agree to comply with all tenets of RTTT including implementing merit pay, subscribing to a narrow and restrictive set of approaches to improving low-performing schools, and the possibility of having to "repay" grant funding if all benchmarks were not "achieved."

To make matters worse, and in a true display of Governor Schwarzenegger's disingenuous and cynical approach to educational policy as a simple political football, while the Governor proposes budgets that ask schools to reduce the number of instructional days to save monies, he pushes legislation in the name of RTTT, and an MOU, that requires low-performing schools to increase the length of the school day and school year.

Although the vast majority of California's districts do not currently have schools that are so severely under performing that they would have to be reconstituted as required by RTTT, that could change depending on what the feds do when they reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act later this year.

One of the main criticisms of the current NCLB legislation enacted in 2001 is that it mandates all students score at a "proficient" level in Math and Reading state-standardized tests by 2014. "Proficient" is a technical term -- the second highest of the five levels of achievement in school testing, roughly equivalent to a solid B. So the NCLB law requires that all students be B students within four years...just like in Garrison Keillor's fictional Lake Wobegon, "where all the children are above average."

Sadly, the joke will be on us if we continue down this Mr. Toad's Wild Ride for the fate of public education.

Unfortunately, those of us who are reading the tea leaves in Arne Duncan's (Obama's Secretary of Education) cup are finding an insidious mixture brewing. As education policy expert Diane Ravitch reported in Ed Week, "Arne Duncan is certainly familiar with school turnarounds. He closed down a number of schools in Chicago. Studies done by Chicago think tanks have shown that most of the brand-new, turned-around charter schools enrolled few of the students who previously attended "failing" schools. The Consortium on Chicago School Research produced a report revealing what happened to students when their "failing" school was closed: 80 percent of the students enrolled in low-performing schools transferred to other low-performing schools. There is no evidence that the turnaround strategy in Chicago has produced positive results."

Yet Mr. Duncan is currently promoting charters as the solution to the education problems of America.

Ravitch continues, "Charter school organizers and management companies must be licking their chops, waiting to scoop up the new federal dollars and new opportunities for market expansion that (Arne Duncan will help open) for them. The charter movement began as an effort to strengthen public education, but it has turned into a movement to get rid of public sector unions and to turn public schools into private schools funded by public dollars."

Race to the Top explicitly touts charter schools as a major option in dealing with low performing schools despite scant evidence of their effectiveness. And this is where buyers of Race to the Top need to beware and ask tough questions of our elected leaders who are jumping on board the bandwagon. While we support our local boards and trust their judgment and leadership, we believe it's important that these issues are publicly debated as we go down the path of Race to the Top together. Nothing less than the future of public education is at stake.

The preceding commentary was co-written with:
Jose Moreno, President, Anaheim City School District Board of Education
Michael Matsuda, President, North Orange County Community College District
Andy Montoya, President, Fullerton Elementary Teachers Association
Originally Published at TheLiberalOC.com

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