Saturday, December 26, 2009


Amber Banks |

December 26, 10:13 AM -- January 19, 2010 marks the first of two application deadlines for states that wish to compete for coveted Race to the Top funds that have been designated by the Obama Administration to help improve low-performing schools in the United States. Race to the Top (RTT) is a federally funded state-by-state competition for 4.35 billion dollars in federal education funding. In the wake of debilitating budget cuts that hit the education sector in California particularly hard in recent years, the California state government is eager to get a piece of the pie. A state that was once heralded for its public education system, California has slipped perilously to the bottom of the ranks. According to Ed-Data, California has the largest K-12 student population in the nation with roughly 6.2 million students, one-quarter of whom are English Language Learners. The State of California is eligible for $300-$700 million dollars in federal funding, but the state must make several adjustments in its education law and policy in order to qualify for the funds. There are currently 40 other states that plan to apply for RTT funds.

The massive Los Angeles Unified School District is an important player in California school reform, being the largest district in the state and the second largest in the nation. A series of controversial requirements needed to qualify for the RTT funds have caused an onslaught of debate within the district. Two of the issues that have caused the most controversy are the practice of firing tenured teachers for sub-par performance and removing restrictions on the number of charter schools allowed within a district.

The issue of training and retaining effective teachers within LAUSD has been a hot button issue for some time. According to Ed-Data’s 2005-2006 data, California was ranked last in total staff, with a particular lack in guidance counselors and librarians. One of the main issues that has been under fire recently in LAUSD is the practice of teacher tenuring. The Los Angeles Times recently published an investigative report entitled “Failure Gets A Pass” that gives an in-depth look at the district’s practice of keeping probationary and unsuccessful teachers on the payroll. In a recent statement, LAUSD Superintendent Ramon Cortines announced that he has ordered district administrators to fire teachers who perform poorly before they become tenured, a practice that has yet to be implemented in the district. The LA Times investigation found that fewer than 2% of all probationary teachers are denied tenure and that principals are not required to consider testing scores or student grades when evaluating teacher performance.

Surrounded by similar controversy, the charter school “takeover,” as it has been coined, has prompted an almost equal amount of praise and criticism from both sides of the schoolyard. Charter schools are publicly funded, privately managed schools that have rapidly increased in popularity in Los Angeles in recent years. There is currently a bid out for the charter takeover of some 30 new and under-performing schools within the district. This unprecedented move has prompted the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) union group to sue the district on the grounds that the move violates teacher’s rights. Many district employee’s jobs, contracts, and benefits would be in jeopardy in the switch from the district to an independent charter because Charter law does not require that the new schools adhere to district or union contracts.

With the Race to the Top deadline quickly approaching, it appears that the Los Angeles Unified School District is trying to do its part to align itself with the requirements for the Race to the Top funding. Recent announcements on behalf of LAUSD to enforce more stringent teacher assessment policies and the push for more charter schools in the district seem to echo the stipulations set forth by the Obama Administration in the Race to the Top guidelines. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is a vocal proponent of the new reforms. He writes in an article published in the Huffington Post earlier this month, “Make no mistake, California needs this funding. Our children are suffering from a lack of resources at their schools and constant teacher turnover. Our teachers are suffering from increasingly heavier workloads due to layoffs. And our local school districts are facing dire budget choices. It is unacceptable for lawmakers to do anything less than pass real reform so we can compete for all of the $700 million.” As the title of Villaraigosa's article indicates, in Los Angeles it appears that the race to the top starts now. Hopefully, its not too late.

●●smf's 2¢:  Ms. Banks writes:

  1. "Two of the issues that have caused the most controversy are the practice of firing tenured teachers for sub-par performance and removing restrictions on the number of charter schools allowed within a district."  From my outsider-looking-in position it's easy to find problems with LAUSD, but the District is blameless here.
    a) Tenured teachers – wither exemplary or sub-par - are protected by State law; the Board of Ed and the may0r can fulminate ad museum but they are powerless beyond the OpEd page. Welcome to the public speaker gallery, take a number.
    b) The State also sets the cap on charters. LAUSD already has more charter schools than anywhere else in the nation.  No charter application has ever been denied because we are over the cap. Charter schools are supposed to benefit all students, sharing lessons-learned and best-practices. The history of charters in LAUSD has been like a badly managed kindergarten class: pushing, shoving, name-calling and not a lot of sharing. What good have the charters done for the 550,000 LAUSD students not in them?
  2. "Charter law does not require that the new schools adhere to district or union contracts"  Charter law does require all charter schools to serve Special Education students, yet most do not. Ms Bank's bio claims she is a Special Ed teacher …in the interest  of objectivity shouldn't she examine this?


For more information see:

LA Times Investigative Report:

California Education Data Partnership:

California Department of Education, Race to the Top Letter to Local Education Agencies:

Federal Department of Education “Race to the Top” Website:

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