When does a four-page cover sheet cost $49 million? When it's part of California's application for the latest round of federal school improvement funding.
By signing the cover sheet, state officials would have been endorsing the establishment of statewide teacher evaluation methods – a commitment they would not make.
Federal education officials announced the state's bid for Race to the Top funds was denied Wednesday morning because its application was deemed to be "incomplete" by the U.S. Department of Education.
The money would have been used in seven school districts throughout the state to implement common math and English language standards, build a teacher assessment system and boost achievement at low-performing schools.
Education officials disagree on who is to blame for the scuttled application.
"The money was ours for the asking," said Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson. "One million students were left out in the cold, and it didn't have to be this way."
A large part of the $49 million was slated to go to Fresno Unified, which already uses some of its $584.2 million annual general fund to develop student assessment and evaluation systems.
Hanson is president of the California Office of Reform Education, the group of seven districts – Fresno, Clovis, Sanger, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco – that spearheaded the state's second unsuccessful Race to the Top application last year and lobbied state officials to apply for this latest round of funding.
Clovis and Sanger officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Hanson said the application was a four-page cover sheet and a copy of the strategies outlined in the state's previous application.
CORE officials say the application was denied because the state didn't turn in the federally required cover sheet that pledges, among other things, to tie teacher evaluations to test scores and use statewide methods to turn around low-performing schools.
State officials say they couldn't sign the cover sheet because teacher evaluations and school performance strategies are determined at the local level. State Department of Education spokesman Paul Hefner said federal officials should have allowed California some flexibility in its application.
Hefner wouldn't comment on whether the state's reluctance to sign the four-page cover sheet stemmed from political pressure by the state's teachers union.
So instead of signing and returning the cover sheet that would have committed California to work toward federal goals, state leaders sent a two-page letter to the U.S. Department of Education that was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst.
The letter assured federal officials that the state would move toward some of the federal requirements – adopting core standards in English and math and developing a statewide system to track student progress – but it stopped short of endorsing statewide teacher evaluation methods and strategies to turn around under-performing schools.
A spokesman for the California Teachers Association could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
Elizabeth Ashford, Brown's chief deputy press secretary, said the governor is away this week and referred all questions to the Department of Education.
Torlakson called the letter a "good faith effort" to apply for the federal money.
"I had hoped the federal administration would be mindful of the financial emergency facing California's schools and the severe constraints it has placed on state resources," he said in a statement.
Justin Hamilton, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, said the state's belief that its two-page letter was a suitable substitute for the application cover sheet was "incorrect." He said he was unable to elaborate.
Hanson said CORE will continue to work toward developing statewide student and teacher evaluation systems, with the help of $5 million from private foundations.
"But $49 million would've been an incredible boost to the work we're doing to try to improve our system," he said.