Updating any interested taxpayers on my trip: last week I attended the Legislation and Policy Conference of the Council of the Great City Schools, an advocacy organization of 67 urban school districts that works for equitable distribution of educational resources, conducts research on education issues and lobbies Washington on behalf of urban districts.
The highlight of the conference was the speech made by new U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, outlining President Obama’s major education priorities:
- Establishing common career- and college-ready standards for all of the 50 states;
- Moving towards a series of assessments that support those standards rather than one high-stakes test at the end of the year;
- Better data collection and tracking;
- Rewarding the “best and the brightest” in teaching;
- Getting teaching talent where it is needed;
- Improving the lowest-performing schools — many schools have improved greatly in recent years but the performance of the schools at the bottom has barely budged or even declined.
Over and over, speakers at the conference told us that the amount of Federal money on the table for education is unprecedented: not only have they allocated significant increases in funds for special education (IDEA) and for low-income children (Title I), the President has asked for $5 billion in a special competitive fund that will be awarded to school districts based on how well and how innovatively they respond to the administration’s priorities as outlined above.
Now, in our favor is that locally we have great relationships with Secretary Duncan. Not so much in our favor is the general disrepair of the educational system here in California. Since the state will get stimulus funds first, the worry here is that the Governor and the legislature will use our stimulus funds to backfill gaps rather than allow us some flexibility to show that we have the capacity to innovate. Secretary Duncan was very clear in pointing out that states and school districts that are innovative will have the ability to draw on far more money from the $5 billion than those that simply maintain the status quo. We have a plan and momentum here in San Francisco — the question is, will the state support that or let us founder for lack of resources?