Monday, August 30, 2010


Themes in the News for the week of Aug. 23-27, 2010 By UCLA IDEA staff

California spending graph

08-27-2010  -- As announced on Tuesday, and accompanied by great fanfare and skepticism, nine states and the District of Columbia secured the last remaining dollars from the Race to the Top pot. California advanced to the final stages in the second round but failed in its bid for $700 million in federal funding. That sum would have averaged about $111 per student for each of the state’s 6 million students. 

Although Race to the Top is billed as a competition among states, it is students who are the winners and losers. On Tuesday, most of the students in the country turned out to be losers. The winning students attend schools in Massachusetts, New York, Hawaii, Florida, Rhode Island, District of Columbia, Maryland, Georgia, North Carolina and Ohio. Their states will receive anywhere from $75 million to $700 million to implement reforms that are in line with President Obama’s education plan to improve low-performing schools (Education Week).

Race to the Top was created last year as part of the country’s economic stimulus plan. States interested in competing for a slice of the $4 billion available created new laws, changed evaluation systems, adopted the recently released Common Core Standards and provided more support for charter schools. All the measures could provide extra points in the application process. Tennessee and Delaware were the only winners in Phase 1.

California did not reach very far in the first round and had to be prodded to reapply. The second round application was led by seven district superintendents, including Supt. Ramon Cortines of Los Angeles Unified. However, the competition judges responded negatively to the state’s overall tepid support for some of Race to the Top’s controversial measures (Los Angeles Times, Educated Guess). The teachers unions were unenthused and the majority of school districts did not participate. Less than a third of the state’s more than 1,000 districts—representing 1.7 million students—signed on. California’s inadequate data system also cost points in the competition (San Jose Mercury News, Educated Guess).

Each of the winning Race to the Top states already outspends California (see graph). The District of Columbia and Rhode Island spend more than twice as much on students as California spends. The new influx of federal dollars will further increase the disparity between California and higher spending states. California’s per-pupil spending dropped by more than $1,000 between 2007-08 and 2009-10. And though this year’s budget has yet to be approved, the current proposal calls for a $2.7 billion cut, or another $432 for each student.    

People continue to debate the Race-to-the-Top strategy for leveraging school improvement across the country (Christian Science Monitor, Education Week, EdWeek Politics blog). The administration’s theory is that even losing states like California are better off because they will change their laws in order to compete, they will learn from “successful” states, and they will become motivated to improve. Yet, there are few precedents for such a top-down federal strategy to succeed—especially one that demands a lot from local schools and, on average, offers so little support.  Although California is taking halting steps to align itself with federal education leadership, it is not clear whether its students will be beneficiaries or victims of Race to the Top (California Watch). What is clear is that the resource gap continues to grow between California students and students across the United States.

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