By SCOTT MARTINDALE and FERMIN LEAL | O.C. Register | http://bit.ly/5HKnki
2010-01-11 19:25:38 -- As few as nine Orange County school districts have committed to implement sweeping reforms championed under President Obama's federal Race to the Top grant program for schools, leaving up to 19 ineligible to receive the potentially millions of federal stimulus dollars that California is seeking.
School districts across the state were required to commit to the president's education reform agenda by Friday, ahead of a Jan. 19 deadline for California to apply for a federal Race to the Top grant. Twenty-one of O.C.'s 28 school districts initially committed to the plan, but many have since pulled out.
Who's on board
Committed: The following O.C. school districts have signed memorandums of understanding with the state, meaning they are committed to implementing President Obama's reform agenda for schools:
Initial, but not final: The districts that initially committed, but didn't sign the memorandum, according to the state's tally, are:
No commitment: The districts that didn't commit initially and thus didn't sign the memorandum are:
California stands to win up to $700 million from the competitive grant program, but only the districts that sign onto the education reforms will be eligible for a slice of those funds.
"I don't like the idea of rushing into something when we're talking about instruction and student improvement," said Superintendent Joseph Farley of the Anaheim Union High School District, which dropped out after initially committing. "We have already been engaged in instructional reform for the past five years. We were being asked to commit to a program that hadn't been fully vetted and for which there were a lot of unknown implications for schools."
After months of political wrangling, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger – a staunch proponent of Race to the Top – signed the reforms needed for California to apply for the funding.
Perhaps the most controversial reform for Orange County schools is linking teacher evaluations to students' academic achievement.
California's Race to the Top legislation also creates tough, new accountability measures for the state's lowest-performing schools and empowers parents to pull their kids out of failing schools or demand sweeping reform plans for them.
At least nine O.C. school districts have formally signed onto the plan via a memorandum of understanding with the state Department of Education, according to a tally posted on the department's Web site, which is updated continuously. That's in contrast to 21 O.C. school districts that tentatively committed to the reforms late last year, via a letter of intent.
Statewide, about 745 school districts and other educational agencies, out of an estimated 1,500, have submitted memorandums of understanding to the state.
"Participation in (Race to the Top) will allow us to partner with the state in building the necessary reforms to positively impact academic achievement of our students," said Superintendent Jane Russo of the Santa Ana Unified School District, Orange County's largest. "We will work with our teachers and union, as well as parents and the community, to implement the program fairly and equitably."
Russo, who noted that Santa Ana Unified could receive $3 million to $6 million if California wins, said funding was not the primary reason for the school district's participation.
"While we value this opportunity, (Race to the Top) funding is not enough to fix the structural budget problems faced by local school districts," she said.
California's Race to the Top memorandum of understanding is a 21-page document that essentially asks school districts to formally pledge support for the state's application and to collaborate with the state to implement the education reforms that California lawmakers passed last week.
'Effective' teacher criteria
The memorandum also offers, for the first time, guidelines on how to evaluate teachers based on their students' performance.
It indicates that an "effective teacher" is one whose students grow academically by at least a full grade level over the course of the school year, as measured by standardized tests. And a "highly effective" teacher is one whose students grow by more than one grade level, perhaps by 1.5 grade levels.
Even with the state's guidelines, however, the methodology for evaluating teachers cannot be changed without agreement from the school district's teachers union.
Anna Bryson, school board president of the Capistrano Unified School District, Orange County's second largest, said she was optimistic educators in this high-achieving South County district would get behind the new teacher evaluations.
"I know without a doubt that they are as interested in perfecting education methodologies as I am," Bryson said. "That is their life work. It's very important that we are able to measure the effectiveness of our teacher outcomes. ... It is through adjusting measurements that you can pretty much be assured you can succeed."
Districts dropping out
Orange County's schools superintendent, Bill Habermehl, predicted last week that many school districts that initially signed onto the reform agenda would drop out when asked to sign the final memorandum.
Habermehl said some districts were feeling uncomfortable about the vagueness of the reforms, or the rushed pace of committing to them, or the extra local resources and funding it might take to move forward on the reforms.
Anaheim City School District's superintendent, Jose Banda, said that while district trustees supported the Race to the Top principles and initiatives, they were worried about signing onto an education plan that has yet to be written. The 19,300-student district would have been eligible for up to $1.5 million if it had signed the memorandum, Banda said.
"The board and staff articulated agreement in concept with most of the requirements in the (Race to the Top) grant, but the ambiguity in some of those requirements, unknown funding level, unclear exit strategy and rushed timeline made it difficult for approval," Banda said.
If California doesn't win in the first phase of the competition, it can apply again for the second and final phase in June.
Federal officials have indicated only 10 to 20 states total are expected to win Race to the Top grants.