By Neil Gonzales | San Jose Mercury News
12/25/2009 -- School districts are weighing their commitment to a federal program that could bring them millions of dollars but also plenty of uncertainty.
The state is asking districts to sign off on its proposed application for funding under the Obama administration's "Race to the Top" initiative, in which California could earn up to $700 million for school reforms in a competition with other states.
Several local districts, including Jefferson Union High and Sequoia Union High, have told the state they intend to participate in that application although they remain wary of unintended consequences.
"The problem for many of us is it's unclear what the state's play is going to be," said Michael Crilly, superintendent of Jefferson Union in Daly City. "So it's almost signing up for something that you're not totally clear about."
State lawmakers are hurriedly trying to piece together legislation that would make California eligible for the $4.4 billion program. The deadline for states to submit their application is Jan. 19.
Ahead of that, state education leaders want districts by Jan. 8 to send in a memorandum of understanding, or MOU, that confirms their participation.
"We're trying to get as many on board because it'll help bolster the application to the feds," said Tina Jung, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.
As of Tuesday morning, 385 educational agencies out of more than 1,000 sent the state a letter of intent, according to the department.
"A portion have already submitted MOUs," Education Department spokeswoman Hilary McLean added. "We expect more MOUs to come in before Jan. 8."
In the documents, districts agree to partner with the state on four key reform areas: refining current academic standards, providing new support for teachers and principals to improve their effectiveness, enhancing local data systems and coordinating them with California's, and dramatically turning around the lowest-achieving schools.
Jefferson Union will likely turn in its agreement so as not to lose out on potential funding, Crilly said, but "there are a lot of unknowns and concerns."
For instance, he said, Race to the Top would require that teachers be evaluated formally every year. Currently, that's done every other year.
Doing evaluations more frequently "sounds great on paper," Crilly said, but he questioned how feasible that is given staff reductions in these tough budget times.
"What some people are afraid of is that (the federal program) is initiated now and the dollars are yanked off the table later" if economic problems persist, he also said.
Sequoia Union board Vice President Lorraine Rumley echoed Crilly's sentiments.
"I'm not sure of all the caveats," Rumley said.
But Sequoia Union in Redwood City also doesn't want to miss out on any funding opportunities. "We are preparing in case it comes our way and turns out to be a good thing," Rumley said.
The Burlingame-based California Teachers Association, meanwhile, opposed proposed legislative provisions that the union argued would "create chaos" in local districts.
The provisions that concerned the group involved allowing students to transfer to other districts if they attend a low-performing school and requiring major steps to improve a failing campus if a number of parents sign a petition demanding action.
The state understands that some districts might later drop out of participation for one reason or another, Jung said, but they should realize that could hurt California's chances for the federal monies.
A state-sponsored Web site, http://www.caracetothetop.org/cs/rttt/print/htdocs/home.htm, has answers to the many questions that districts have about Race to the Top, Jung said.