In Sacramento today there was a flurry of activity to pass legislation that would allow the state to apply for up to $700 million in Federal Race to the Top funding. Passed by the Assembly this evening and scheduled for the Senate tomorrow, the legislation takes several steps to bring California law into alignment with the requirements of Race to the Top, including:
- tracking students’ achievement longitudinally as they move through the state’s education system;
- enabling local districts to use test scores and other achievement data to evaluate teachers and principals; and
- adopting several options for overhauling failing schools, including outright closure, replacing leadership and staff, or converting a school into a charter (neither the Federal guidelines nor the legislation specify what school districts should do with a failing charter – presumably revoke its charter and turn it back to a traditional public school?).
But the legislation doesn’t stop there – it also makes sweeping changes to the state’s open enrollment law and gives parents at a failing school the power to trigger one of the reform options. Students at one of the state’s roughly 1,000 failing schools would be allowed to apply to higher-performing schools anywhere; local districts would adopt their own rules governing how and when to accept these transfers. The parent “trigger” would work by allowing a majority of 50 percent or more of parents at any of the state’s failing schools to request that one of the reform options (e.g., closure, charter conversion, replacing staff) be implemented.
School boards and the state’s labor unions are united in their opposition to these last two provisions, let alone many of the provisions in the original Federal Race to the Top guidelines. But the money the Federal government is dangling will probably prove to be too much to pass up. Indeed, the Superindent has called a Special Meeting of the Board on Thursday evening to ask for authorization to enter into the required Memorandum of Understanding with the State of California — this MOU must be submitted to the state by Friday so that the state can include it with its application to the U.S. Department of Education, due in Washington by January 19.
My own misgivings about this plan center both on the narrowminded insistence on test scores as a way to measure teacher quality and the rather heavy-handed approach to school reform. There are things I like about the parent trigger, but I’m uncomfortable with the idea that charters always represent reform – since there are both good and bad examples. A nice summary of other uncertainties in the Federal rules and the state’s response to them is here, from the California School Boards Association. The California Teachers Association’s alert to its members, asking them to work to defeat the bills, is here. For its part, the California PTA is generally supportive of the legislation currently under debate.