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Governor Calls Special Session, Proposes New Legislation for "Race to the Top" Requirements

By Jeff Hudson - August 21, 2009

Citing a concern that current state law may leave California ineligible to apply for a portion of the $4.35 billion in federal funds under the “Race to the Top” program, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger moved on two fronts on Thursday.

The Governor called another special session of the California legislature, and also announced a legislative package that he said would ensure that California meets the eligibility requirements for “Race to the Top.”

The Republican governor aligned himself with the Democratic administration in the nation’s capital, saying “I stand with President Obama and Secretary (Arne) Duncan in pushing these education reforms not only to ensure California is eligible and competes for billions in (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) dollars, but because I believe they will help provide a better education for California’s children.”

Schwarzenegger also made a comment that may irk some legislative Democrats – and educators – who have accused the Governor of cutting too much funding for K-12 education in recent budget negotiations. Schwarzenegger said “California and its education system have felt the effects of the economic downturn and with every child in every classroom depending on us – I call on the legislature to ensure California leads the ‘Race to the Top.’”

Bullet points in the Governor’s legislative package include:

  1. Linking student achievement and teacher performance data.
  2. Repeal California’s charter school cap.
  3. “Giving parents more freedom to choose” by authorizing open enrollment for students in “the lowest performing schools,” and removing the cap on “district of choice.”
  4. “Focus efforts on the five percent of schools that consistently underperform.”
  5. Alternative pay schedules for teachers who “highlight effective teaching practices.”
  6. “Measure student progress to help identify what works in the classroom.”
  7. The Governor wants the legislature to act on his proposals by early October.

A few hours after calling the special session, Schwarzenegger’s office forwarded to reporters a statement from federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who said “When I visited California in May, I challenged the education leaders – I asked them if their state was going to lead the ‘Race to the Top’ or if they were going to lead the retreat.  I am encouraged by the governor's proposal which appears to be consistent with the reforms the President and I have outlined. I am hopeful the education package the governor has proposed will garner the support it needs to pass ultimately removing a legislative barrier that prohibits the state from distinguishing good teachers from bad teachers.  These are tough decisions that will not only require the political will of the governor but also that of the elected officials, unions, legislators and community leaders. California may indeed serve as an example to other states that are facing similar challenges – this is a step in the right direction.”

Larry Aceves, a former superintendent who is running for State Superintendent for Public Instruction in 2010, issued a blunt statement in response to the Governor’s actions.

“California's schools and students have made important achievement gains in recent years despite this Governor, not because of him,” Aceves said.

“It's disingenuous of the Governor to say he wants to allow our students to compete in a race to the top when he's been the chief advocate of slashing school funding to the bottom of all states,” Aceves added.

“Alongside our students and their families, educators have the greatest stake in the success of our schools and deserve credit for improving student outcomes despite record budget cuts.  Rather than rehashing an old agenda voters have rejected, the Governor should be working with educators to raise the revenues our students need to achieve,” Aceves concluded.

Assemblyman Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch), a candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2010, released a statement suggesting that the focus of the special session might be too narrow. Torlakson said “In this time of crisis, focusing our attention on the expansion of the district of choice program is a distraction from what really ought to be doing—fixing our neighborhood schools.  The choice parents really want is to send their child to a safe, quality school right in their own neighborhood.  We must focus our attention and resources on improving every school, and giving every child the best education we can, not on programs that will help only a select few."

Torlakson added, “I was also disappointed that the Governor’s call for a special session said nothing about improving the health and wellbeing of our children.  We know that we must have healthy, active and well-nourished children in order to achieve in schools.  Without a healthy start, our efforts to educate our children will fall flat.”

Assemblywoman Gloria Romero (D-East Los Angeles), who is another candidate for State Superintendent in 2010, took a stance supportive of the Governor.  “I applaud the Governor’s action in announcing his commitment to ensuring California is eligible to apply for the federal ‘Race to the Top’ funding.  As a life-long supporter of education and adamant education reformer, I am confident my colleagues are ready to meet the challenge,” said Romero.

“I had previously called for a joint hearing of the Senate Education Committee and the Budget and Fiscal Review Subcommittee No. 1 on Education—scheduled for August 26—to determine what statutory changes are necessary for California to not only meet minimum eligibility requirements, but also maximize the state’s chances of receiving the largest grant possible.  I look forward to working with the Governor and other legislators as we prepare to lead the Race to the Top.”

Editor's Note: Jeff Hudson is the editor of EdBrief and an award-winning education reporter and writer in print, radio and television media.