North County Times [North San Diego and Southwest Riverside counties]
Jan 23, 2010 -- As the federal government dangles a financial carrot to encourage school districts to commit to a series of education reforms, more than half of North County districts so far have decided not to bite.
That carrot -- the Obama administration's so-called "Race to the Top" program -- comes with what some educators consider serious strings. To qualify for the money, states and school districts must agree to requirements such as using test data in teacher evaluations, giving parents more of a say in what school their child attends and financially rewarding high-performing teachers.
The California Department of Education, which is expecting as much as $700 million from the federal program, set a Jan. 8 deadline for school districts to sign a memorandum of understanding indicating they wanted in on the deal.
In North County, seven districts signed the form and 10 didn't. The districts that said they were interested in the program are Bonsall Union, Cardiff Union, Encinitas Union, Ramona Unified, San Marcos Unified, Vallecitos Elementary and Vista Unified.
Some local educators said they couldn't commit to the program without more details.
"There were too many unknowns for me to recommend to the board that we participate," said John Roach, superintendent of the Carlsbad Unified School District.
Even in districts that signed the form, officials said that doesn't mean they have fully committed to all the changes.
"We want to see where things go," said Tim Baird, superintendent of the Encinitas Union School District. "The devil's in the details."
In Escondido, both school districts declined to sign the memorandum because they said more time was needed to study the long-term effects of Race to the Top.
"The problem is, it was put together so hurried, and the ramifications weren't clear," said Joan Gardner, president of the Escondido Union School District Board of Trustees.
Gardner said the district did not have time to discuss Race to the Top with the teachers association before the deadline to sign the memorandum of understanding.
"We haven't abandoned the idea, but at this time we couldn't move forward with all the unknowns," she said.
Escondido Union High School District Trustee Tina Pope also said the board felt rushed to make a decision.
"There's a few things in that memorandum of understanding that aren't clear, and I'm not a fan, personally, of jumping into something without having all the details before us," she said.
State officials were strongly encouraging districts to get on board before Jan. 8 to show solidarity and improve the state's chances of getting the federal grant money, said Tina Jung, a spokeswoman with the state Education Department.
But schools that didn't sign the memorandum by the state's January deadline may be able to join the program later. Nothing in the federal application precludes that, according to the California Education Department's Web site.
It's unclear how the state will handle such latecomers.
Some local school officials have said they have interpreted the rules to mean that they wouldn't qualify for any of the federal money if they didn't sign the memorandum.
Those that did sign it will be able to back out if they can't make the changes for some reason "after a good faith effort," the memorandum states.
In total, more than $4 billion is set to be doled out to participating states through Race to the Top, part of the sweeping federal stimulus program known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. California officials expect to get between $350 million and $700 million. The state Education Department can take as much as half of that. The rest will be split up among participating districts.
Statewide, 760 educational agencies -- including school districts, charter schools and county educational offices -- have signed the memorandum.
It's not yet clear how much money that could mean for each district, but some local educators say they don't expect it to be much.
"It's a big state, and it's not a ton of money," Roach said.
Staff writer Gary Warth contributed to this report.