‘Race to the Top’ begins – will it pass California by?

Today President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan officially announced the beginning of the ‘Race to the Top,’ an unprecedented $4.35 billion competitive grant fund that will support educational innovation and renewed focus on rapidly closing the achievement gap. In the announcement, the President said:

This competition will not be based on politics, ideology, or the preferences of a particular interest group. Instead, it will be based on a simple principle—whether a state is ready to do what works. We will use the best data available to determine whether a state can meet a few key benchmarks for reform—and states that outperform the rest will be rewarded with a grant.

And there’s the rub, as far as California is concerned –we don’t stand a very good chance in this competition.  For one thing, there’s the budget crisis, which has severely limited our ability to hold on to the status quo, let alone innovate. For another, there’s the fact that California is among the worst of all the states in tracking and analyzing student academic performance data — one of the reforms that are central to the President’s education agenda. Today’s Los Angeles Times has an article on this topic, in particular our  conscious policy choice not to link student performance with a particular teacher, a decision which Secretary Duncan has reportedly called “mind-boggling” and “ridiculous.” (The Times chose to frame this debate in rather alarmist terms, saying the state would be “threatened with loss of funds” because we continue to debate whether student test scores are the best way to measure teacher effectiveness. But really we are being threatened with missing out on new money if we don’t go along with the Secretary’s enthusiasm for this reform.)

Here in San Francisco, we had been hoping that our local reform agenda and influence in Washington would help us qualify for a taste of the ‘Race to the Top’ funds. But when he visited San Francisco last spring, the Secretary threw a dash of cold water on any expectations that individual school districts in California would be able to convince him to sponsor their reform efforts. He made clear that ‘Race to the Top’ is about state-level reform.

It’s a shame, because encouraging innovation and fostering reform in California could have a tremendous effect on the state and the nation as a whole. The combined size of the California’s 10 largest school districts (San Francisco is the 7th largest) is over 1.3 million students–primarily low-income students of color– and bigger than the total K-12 enrollment of 39  states.  There are good ideas and energy here, and the impatience and frustration is palpable at every education conference and meeting I attend.  Right now, because of the state’s broken system of governance and the budget crisis, education in California can’t catch a break.

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