By Marsha Sutton
Jan. 19 was the deadline for states to apply for federal education money from a U.S. Department of Education program called Race to the Top (RTTT). But in order to be considered, states first had to ensure that their laws are consistent with RTTT requirements.
The scrambling to meet the qualifications to apply for this pot of relatively limited federal education money had the state of California, its lawmakers, the California Department of Education and all the state's 1,000 school districts in a panic the past few months.
In the end, laws were hurriedly passed that aligned California's goals with controversial federal objectives, and school districts were then called upon to sign on in support. But many districts were wondering, "In support of what?"
The accelerated manner with which districts were asked to endorse the effort made many uneasy. And commitments the state would require of districts, in exchange for the money, were fuzzy at best.
"They said initially, 'Just trust us,'" said Leslie Fausset, superintendent of the kindergarten through sixth-grade Solana Beach School District.
Fausset, whose district did not sign the state's Memorandum of Understanding, said the agreement read like a blank sheet. Solana Beach was hardly alone.
Signing the MOU to agree to the state's conditions for the federal Race to the Top money were only 14 of the county's 42 school districts.
Those 14 are: Bonsall, Cardiff, Chula Vista, Coronado, Del Mar, Encinitas, Mountain Empire, National, Ramona, Rancho Santa Fe, San Marcos, San Ysidro, Sweetwater and Vista.
Missing from the list are some heavy hitters, the biggest being San Diego Unified. But also not signing were: Cajon Valley, Carlsbad, Escondido, Grossmont, La Mesa-Spring Valley, Oceanside, Poway, San Dieguito, South Bay and 18 others.
"Districts were asked to sign an MOU with no information about the commitment that we might have to do to qualify for the money," said Bernie Rhinerson, chief district relations officer for the San Diego Unified School District.
"The state doesn't have a plan done, so we weren't able to analyze what the implication or commitments or costs might be," he said. "There was a total lack of information. So all of that taken together, the district decided not to sign the MOU."
In addition, Rhinerson said the process was too rushed and was poorly timed, with decisions needing to be made over the December holidays. "The deadline was the eighth [of January], and there was still no information," he said.
Rhinerson said the school board held a brief discussion of the issue before the holidays at a budget workshop. "There was never a vote," he said. "So it really was the superintendent's decision, but certainly the board was in agreement with it."
The amount of RTTT money that California might qualify for, if its application is approved, would be $350 million to $700 million.
Of that, Rhinerson estimated that only a tiny portion might find its way to San Diego Unified, which has been struggling with debilitating financial shortages and has been straining to find ways to cut tens of millions of dollars in expenses.
"That money is not the solution to our budget crisis," he said. "It's probably less than $5 million for us out of a $1 billion budget."
Needed reform measures, or extortion?
The competitive grant program, according to a California Deptartment of Education news release issued Jan. 4, was designed to encourage and reward states and local educational agencies (LEAs) that are "creating the conditions for education innovation and reform."
Landmark California education reform legislation was signed recently by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger after bills passed Jan. 5 in the Assembly and Jan. 6 in the Senate. Schwarzenegger had been agitating for many of these changes since last August, when the RTTT conditions were being formulated.
The bills were written to allow California, with its six million kindergarten through 12th-grade students, to compete for the RTTT money, which totals about $4.35 billion. This money is provided through the U.S. government's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
If its application is approved, California stands to receive between $350 million and $700 million. Of this amount, 50 percent would be awarded to participating LEAs based on Title I formula counts. The remaining 50 percent would be used by the state, some of which may be provided to participating LEAs, according to School Services of California, an education advocacy organization in Sacramento.
Four core areas of focus needed to be addressed for states to apply for RTTT funding:
- Standards and assessments: Adopt internationally benchmarked standards and assessments that prepare students for success in college and the workplace.
- Data systems: Build data systems that measure student success and inform teachers and principals how they can improve their practices.
- Teachers and leaders: Recruit, develop, retain and reward effective teachers and principals, and find ways to use student achievement growth data as one of multiple teacher evaluation methods.
- Low-performing schools: Focus attention on ways to identify and turn around each district's lowest performing schools, and give students at these schools more school-choice options.
The laws that passed give state officials the power to close failing schools, convert them to charter schools, or replace the principal and half the staff. Students stuck in low-performing schools would have greater access to other schools. And perhaps most controversially, prohibitions against linking student performance to teacher evaluations have been removed.
Not all lawmakers were receptive to the measures, with some saying that forcing states to make radical changes to their education codes to meet federal conditions was nothing less than extortion.
Is the race worth running?
A vigorous campaign to get school districts and all the state's LEAs to sign on to the program by the Jan. 8 deadline was coordinated by the CDE.
School Services of California addressed districts' questions and concerns in a report issued Jan. 6 titled "Evaluating Race to the Top: Is the race worth running?"
SSC said California school districts on average have lost about $1,500 per student in last two years and that "the amount that will come to those receiving RTTT will be small compared to recent losses."
Although SSC said that new funding opportunities should never be overlooked, the
nonpartisan group advised caution in this case.
According to the report, LEAs best served by RTTT money "are those for which the funding will help support initiatives and activities that they already planned to pursue."
But if the conditions take a district in a new direction, it may not be in the district's best interest to accept the money, reads the SSC report. If conditions are not consistent with current district priorities, "it's probably not the time to divert time, energy and attention to a new initiative."
Summing up, SSC experts said, "If RTTT is of interest exclusively because it offers an opportunity for funding, this should be a red flag. But if it can help further a plan in place, join the race."
Solana Beach's Fausset agrees with this assessment, saying this kind of initiative "can start to feel like the 'reform du jour' and keeps you from the complexity of the work."
She said chasing state and federal money all the time is like standing on "shifting sand."
Many of the new laws are already aligned with the direction Fausset said her district is headed. "It's work we're already doing," she said. "It's assessment, intervention, acceleration. We're clear about our mission ... [and] where we're going, which is focused on students and learning. There's only so much you can do and focus on. These other programs actually can distract you from your targeted work."
Fausset also said the RTTT money would be one-time, short-term funding, making any investments unsustainable over time.
Programs and missions that have continuity, consistency and stability are what's important, she said. "Incremental change is the way to make lasting change," she said.
Ken Noah, superintendent of the 12,000-student San Dieguito Union High School District, came to the same conclusion and decided against signing the CDE's MOU.
"My concern is that this has the potential to be counterproductive to the work in which we have been engaged over the past 18 months through our own 'Improving Student Achievement Initiative,'" Noah said in an e-mail.
"We have, in essence, developed initiatives that comprise our own 'race to the top' that we believe are sound, thoughtful, research-based and proven. I simply want to make sure that when we sign on to something, it is consistent with the direction we are working so hard to implement and sustain. I simply do not have a sufficient comfort level at this time."
Noah also echoed the reservations of San Diego Unified's Rhinerson, saying he was hesitant to jump on board with so little time to review the terms, which were vague at best.
Sharon McClain, superintendent of the Del Mar Union School District, said she had originally advised against signing the MOU. But when she learned that the district could back out as more information became available, she decided to advise her board to go ahead and sign.
"The compressed timeline for submitting a letter of intent and signing the MOU causes me grave concern," Noah said. "In addition, the state's uncertainty and lack of definition to its plan warrants caution. I am unwilling to recommend to the board that they commit this district to a course of action with such ambiguity."
A non-binding MOU
Despite the uneasiness many school districts expressed, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell said in a prepared statement that the MOU was developed in accordance with recently released federal Race to the Top guidelines and was agreed to by LEAs representing nearly 3.8 million California public school students.
This, he said, is nearly half the school districts, county offices of education and charter schools throughout the state.
Rhinerson said his district is still considering the benefits and risks of applying for the RTTT money, even though San Diego Unified didn't initially sign the MOU.
"That's not to say we don't support the state's effort to get the money, and nobody has said whether you sign or don't sign means you qualify or don't qualify for it," he said. "So should the state be awarded any RTTT money, which I think is a question in and of itself, I would hope that it's available to all districts who qualify and not just the ones who signed the MOU."
But, according to SSC, signing the MOU is not binding. But not signing is.
"Based on the state's preliminary plan, only those that join the application will receive a portion of the funding," reads an SSC report on the RTTT program.
All states needed to submit their applications for RTTT funding by Jan. 19. SSC experts said that California won't know if it will be awarded any RTTT money until April at the earliest. Then LEAs that signed the MOU will have 90 days to submit a statement detailing how they will meet the RTTT conditions and will be allowed out if they so choose.
(First published on San Diego News Network, www.sdnn.com)
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