By CHRISTINA HOAG, Associated Press Writer - from the San Francisco Chronicle
Wednesday, February 17, 2010 | 15:05 PST Los Angeles, CA (AP) -- Less than half of California school districts and only about a quarter of teacher unions have promised to make key education reforms required for the state to win $700 million in competitive federal grants, officials said Wednesday.
Only 41 percent of school districts and 60 percent of eligible charter schools signed on for changes needed to participate in the Obama administration's Race to the Top contest in which states can win extra federal funding to ease the impact of steep budget cuts.
Still, state education officials were hopeful California would be among the states chosen in April to share about $4.35 billion. Officials note that districts agreeing to the reforms represent 58 percent of the state's public school students and almost 61 percent of students from low-income families.
"We're very pleased with the turnout," said Hilary McLean, spokeswoman for the California Department of Education. "We think we have a very strong application. We're competitive."
School districts across the state have suffered severe funding cuts during the past two years, resulting in thousands of teacher layoffs and program cuts. More budget struggles are coming in the next academic year, and the federal grants would be a welcome addition to schools' dwindling coffers.
Los Angeles Unified plans to ask voters in June to ante up a temporary parcel tax to help close an estimated $640 million deficit. The district, the state's largest, has agreed to participate in the contest.
However, the reforms have gained scant support among teacher unions. with only 26 percent of unions signed off on their district's application. Union approval is not necessary for participation in Race to the Top but will be considered since reforms are more likely to be adopted if teachers support them, McLean said.
A key sticking point for unions is a requirement that teacher evaluations be tied to student test scores.
"It is simply not fair or constructive," California Teachers Association President David Sanchez wrote in a letter last year to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
If chosen, California would receive half the grant money and distribute the other half to school districts that agreed to make the changes backed by the federal education department.
The reforms include improving systems to track student performance, enhancing teacher and principal development, turning around low-performing schools and adopting international standards to measure student progress.