Friday, November 25, 2011

DUNCAN TO CALIFORNIA: NO WAY ON ‘RACE TO THE TOP’ - He gives Brown the big bird …or was it vice versa? + State's latest bid for Race to the Top funds fizzles

By John Fensterwald - Educated Guess   - TOP-Ed writer Kathy Baron co-wrote this post |

Posted on 11/23/11 • In another cockfight between California and Washington over education, the U.S. Department of Education has rejected California’s application – and only California’s application – in the third round of Race to the Top. The denial exasperated the seven California school districts that led the state’s effort and were counting on $49 million earmarked for California as critical to do the work they had committed to do.

In a statement Wednesday, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst each criticized the federal government’s inflexibility in not accepting what they described as California’s “innovative” approach of giving control of the reforms to local school districts. Seven unified districts, including Los Angeles, Frenso, and Long Beach, formed a coalition known as CORE, the California Office to Reform Education, to compete for round three and work together on the reform.

Torlakson also said the federal government failed to scale back its expectations for Race to the Top reforms during this fiscal crisis. “I had hoped the federal Administration would be mindful of the financial emergency facing California’s schools and the severe constraints it has placed on state resources,” he said. (In the third round of RTTT, the federal government slashed the available funding from $3.4 billion to $200 million. For California, that reduced the potential award from as much as $700 million to $50 million.)

The federal government saw things differently. In a statement congratulating the other seven states in line for the money, federal officials said California “submitted an incomplete application.”

As we reported here on Tuesday, Kirst, Torlakson, and Gov. Brown, who is vacationing this week, submitted only a two-page letter to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan that indicated that the state was fine with just the seven districts undertaking the reforms.

What state officials didn’t do was submit and sign the official short application, which, the Department ruled Wednesday, disqualified California.

Failure to sign wasn’t simply an oversight; it reflected a fundamental disagreement about what California was asked to commit to. In the second round of RTTT, the state had agreed to four broad areas of reform:

  • Implementing Common Core standards;
  • Building data systems to measure student growth and success in order to improve instruction;
  • Recruiting, training, and rewarding effective teachers and principals;
  • Turning around the lowest-achieving schools.

In being asked to reaffirm these reforms for round three, the state and CORE districts had very different interpretations. The districts believed that nothing had changed; they remained committed to the four reform areas agreed to in the second round. All that Brown and the others had to do was simply acknowledge that the Legislature hadn’t passed any laws reversing the commitments made in round two.

“It was a unique application that only committed participating districts to reforms,” said Rick Miller, executive director of CORE, which represents the districts.

Brown and Torlakson objected to making any statewide commitments dealing with teacher effectiveness and how to treat failing schools. They also didn’t want to be tied to explicit reforms approved by Gov. Schwarzenegger in the second round application. One in particular, strongly opposed by the California Teachers Association, would have committed the CORE districts to linking standardized test scores to teacher evaluations.

State Board President Kirst agreed with that interpretation. “The issue is not what the districts committed to but what the state was committed to,” said Kirst. “The second round application was slippery in terms of what was committed; it mixed up state and local roles.”

Kirst, Torlaskson, and Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board of Education, have had ongoing conversations with top federal education officials. As recently as this week Kirst spoke with Duncan and expressed his reservations.

The state’s interpretation baffled Fresno Unified Superintendent Mike Hanson, who said he thought the CORE districts had an understanding with the governor to submit the round three application. “I find it hard to believe that whatever gap existed in the end could not have been bridged by having representatives from Sacramento, D.C., and CORE sit down and talk it out,” said Hanson.

Fresno and the other six districts were going to use the federal money to prepare teachers to make the transition to Common Core and build local data systems to share information and their successes. They’ve been starting to do this work using some small foundation grants, but Hanson said the $49 million would have been “jet propulsion for us,” and the results would have been available for all districts in the state.

“We missed a big opportunity, probably the last opportunity” for a major federal grant, said Hanson.  “That money is now going to go to another state to help make those kids more competitive.”


State's latest bid for Race to the Top funds fizzles

By Valerie Gibbons - The Fresno Bee |

Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2011 | 08:55 PM - When does a four-page cover sheet cost $49 million? When it's part of California's application for the latest round of federal school improvement funding.

By signing the cover sheet, state officials would have been endorsing the establishment of statewide teacher evaluation methods – a commitment they would not make.

Federal education officials announced the state's bid for Race to the Top funds was denied Wednesday morning because its application was deemed to be "incomplete" by the U.S. Department of Education.

The money would have been used in seven school districts throughout the state to implement common math and English language standards, build a teacher assessment system and boost achievement at low-performing schools.

Education officials disagree on who is to blame for the scuttled application.



California students have been hit with wave upon wave of cuts in education because of the state's budgetary woes. Getting $49 million in federal Race to the Top money would have been "an incredible boost," Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson said.

"The money was ours for the asking," said Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson. "One million students were left out in the cold, and it didn't have to be this way."

A large part of the $49 million was slated to go to Fresno Unified, which already uses some of its $584.2 million annual general fund to develop student assessment and evaluation systems.

Hanson is president of the California Office of Reform Education, the group of seven districts – Fresno, Clovis, Sanger, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Sacramento and San Francisco – that spearheaded the state's second unsuccessful Race to the Top application last year and lobbied state officials to apply for this latest round of funding.

Clovis and Sanger officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Hanson said the application was a four-page cover sheet and a copy of the strategies outlined in the state's previous application.

CORE officials say the application was denied because the state didn't turn in the federally required cover sheet that pledges, among other things, to tie teacher evaluations to test scores and use statewide methods to turn around low-performing schools.

State officials say they couldn't sign the cover sheet because teacher evaluations and school performance strategies are determined at the local level. State Department of Education spokesman Paul Hefner said federal officials should have allowed California some flexibility in its application.

Hefner wouldn't comment on whether the state's reluctance to sign the four-page cover sheet stemmed from political pressure by the state's teachers union.

So instead of signing and returning the cover sheet that would have committed California to work toward federal goals, state leaders sent a two-page letter to the U.S. Department of Education that was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst.

The letter assured federal officials that the state would move toward some of the federal requirements – adopting core standards in English and math and developing a statewide system to track student progress – but it stopped short of endorsing statewide teacher evaluation methods and strategies to turn around under-performing schools.

A spokesman for the California Teachers Association could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Elizabeth Ashford, Brown's chief deputy press secretary, said the governor is away this week and referred all questions to the Department of Education.

Torlakson called the letter a "good faith effort" to apply for the federal money.

"I had hoped the federal administration would be mindful of the financial emergency facing California's schools and the severe constraints it has placed on state resources," he said in a statement.

Justin Hamilton, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, said the state's belief that its two-page letter was a suitable substitute for the application cover sheet was "incorrect." He said he was unable to elaborate.

Hanson said CORE will continue to work toward developing statewide student and teacher evaluation systems, with the help of $5 million from private foundations.

"But $49 million would've been an incredible boost to the work we're doing to try to improve our system," he said.

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