Bid for federal money could shake up Valley schools

SACRAMENTO - Poorly performing Valley schools could see big changes under proposals the state is considering to snare up to $700 million from a federal program.

But the scope of the reforms remains in doubt as a showdown looms in the Assembly over California's application for Race to the Top money.

The Obama administration initiative makes $4 billion available nationwide to reward states for innovative strategies that boost student achievement and turn around low-performing schools.

In money-hungry California, the state Senate approved a bill earlier this month aimed at improving the state's chances for the competitive grants.

The legislation lifts the state's cap on the number of charter schools, lets students transfer out of failing districts and allows for wholesale personnel changes in poorly performing schools.

The bill is written by Sen. Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, and supported by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. But teachers unions have criticized some of the proposals and are expected to pressure Assembly members when they return in December to consider their own version of the legislation. The state's application is due Jan. 19.

Race to the Top judges states on a multitude of topics, awarding points for meeting such goals as "articulating state's education reform agenda." Education groups are debating exactly what California must do to qualify for the money.

"We believe that [the Senate bill] is a bit too far-reaching," said David Sanchez, president of the politically powerful California Teachers Association.

He criticized Romero for writing a bill before the final regulations were released a couple weeks ago. Union officials are still combing through the rules and haven't proposed an alternative strategy for California to qualify for the federal money.

In Fresno, school administrators mostly support Race to the Top, but unions remain concerned. David Coss, first vice president of the Fresno Teachers Association union, said he voted for Obama. But "I'm very disappointed in the positions he is taking on the educational front," he said.

In the Assembly, debate will likely focus on proposed methods to turn around failing schools.

Romero's bill calls on the state Board of Education to identify the "bottom 5% of the persistently lowest performing schools." The board would then direct districts to reopen the school as a charter school, replace staff, or install an outside management team. The bill would also allow students in failing schools to more easily transfer to another district.

The CTA opposes most of the strategies. In a recent analysis of Race to the Top, the union said replacing staff at a failing school makes it harder to recruit qualified teachers to the school.

Coss, of the Fresno union, said: "If you've got low-functioning kids, just because you fire the staff, that's no guarantee that it's going to turn them around."

Larry Powell, superintendent of the Fresno County Office of Education, said he supports the bill, including the transfer option. "Public schools should not be afraid of choice. I think it makes us better," he said.Another union gripe is the emphasis Race to the Top puts on using student standardized test scores to evaluate teachers.

The Fresno Teachers Association opposes the use of test scores because "all classrooms are not the same, all kids are not the same" Coss said. It "opens up the road for going after teachers and terminating their services."

Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson, who generally supports Race to the Top, said the district would use test scores only to better train teachers.

The data will help the district "find more quickly what we really need to fix," adding, "what I mean by 'fix' is help our people get better."

It is still unclear the role test scores will play when the Obama administration hands out Race to the Top money. Final regulations released on Nov. 11 call for states to use "multiple measures" to evaluate teachers. The rules also emphasize that it is "student growth - not raw student achievement data or proficiency levels - that is the significant factor."

State law does not bar individual districts from using test scores in teacher evaluations. But few do, Powell said. In the state's application for Race to the Top, officials won't mandate the use of test scores - but "we'll be definitely encouraging it," said Glenn Thomas, Schwarzenegger's Secretary of Education.

For districts, participation in the application is optional, but those that don't partake would not get grants if the state wins money.

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