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California Senate Swiftly Approves RTTT Funding, Stirring Praise and Criticism

By Jeff Hudson - November 6, 2009

A bipartisan bill aimed at improving California’s chances at receiving federal Race to the Top funding – which contains provisions that have generated some concern and even opposition in the K-12 education community – sailed through two committees and the California Senate this week.

The Senate Education Committee voted 5-0 on Monday to approve SB X5 1.  The Senate Appropriations Committee then approved the bill by a 7-3 margin on Tuesday.  Later that day, the full Senate approved the bill just after midnight (technically Wednesday), by a 21-12 vote.  The legislation now goes to the Assembly.

Senator Gloria Romero (D-East Los Angeles) viewed the advancement of SB X5 1 – authored by Romero, Senators Bob Huff (R-Glendora), Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara), and Mark Wyland (R- Escondido), and supported by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger --in heroic terms.  “Our work to fulfill our promise of a quality public education for every child in California has just begun,” said Romero.  “I refuse to be grounded by the status quo.  ‘Can’t’ is no longer an option,” she said.

“Race to the Top is about enabling successful schools and providing students with a quality education,” said Romero. “It is about equality and opportunity for all our children despite the color of their skin or on which side of the tracks they live. It is about shutting down the status quo and transforming the dropout factories and low-performing schools where nearly 80 percent of students are Latino and African American.”

Romero issued press releases using rocket launch terms like “ignition” and “liftoff” as the bill cleared the two Senate committees.  Romero maintains that the bill would “provide for turning around historically low-performing schools, use data to improve instruction and student performance, remove the state’s cap on the number of charter schools, authorize open enrollment for students in low-performing schools, and require the state to develop a plan to implement reforms that will make California competitive for a Race to the Top grant.  Moreover, the bill puts California in compliance with the federal requirements for the Race to the Top grant and requires the state to apply for the Phase 1 funding.”

Other analysts say the bill would allow students at poor-performing schools to transfer to campuses in other districts, and would also create a group to study a lifting of the cap on the number of charter schools in the state.

Those analysts also say SB X5 1 also would repeal a law prohibiting the use of data on teacher performance and student achievement for the purpose of evaluating and making employment decisions on teachers.  The bill would require students' parents and teachers be notified if their schools are identified by the state as among the worst-performing 5% of campuses.  Operations at those schools would have to be overhauled.

Spokesmen from multiple education groups warned against moving too swiftly to approve the legislation.

“Education reform shouldn’t be a race; it deserves serious attention that will actually help kids and improve student achievement,” said California Teachers Association (CTA) President David A. Sanchez.  “Proposed reforms need thoughtful discussion with all stakeholders, including parents, teachers and community members.  They should not be sprung on the public just hours before last-minute hearings if any meaningful input is really going to take place.”

The CTA has posted a prominent message on its webpage urging members to “Block (the) Effort to Turn RTTT into (a) Rush to Failure.”  CTA webpage also singles out “State Senator Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) (for) using the federal Race to the Top (RTTT) program to push through unnecessary legislation that will hurt teachers, students and schools.”

“By rushing to enact legislation before the release of final federal regulations,” said California School Boards Association (CSBA) President Paula S. Campbell, “the California State Senate is jumping to conclusions about what is required by the federal government as well as what makes good sense.  For example, while districts should have a wide range of options to improve low performing schools, SB1 5X instead limits reform options by forcing districts to choose from options that research has consistently shown to have a limited chance of success.  It makes no sense to act quickly if the result is a step backward for school reform.”

“At this time we should be focusing on working together to develop a thoughtful Race to the Top plan, rather than adding new laws that may be unnecessary or that may conflict with the final guidelines,” said Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) president and Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools Charles Weis.  “Our analysis shows there is no need for changes to state law to apply for Race to the Top, and premature reforms may have long term and potentially unnecessary consequences for students and schools.”

“We fully support efforts to turn around persistently low performing schools, improve student achievement and close the achievement gap, but such efforts need to be done in a thoughtful manner with input from all stakeholders including parents and community members,” said Debbie Look, director of legislation for the California State PTA.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, on the other hand, greeted the Senate Education Committee’s 5-0 decision on Monday to approve SB X5 1.  “The California legislature now holds the key to helping unlock hundreds of millions of federal education dollars for California’s school children, and I applaud Senator Romero and the Senate Education Committee for moving us one step closer to ensuring California is highly competitive in this national funding competition,” said Schwarzenegger on Monday.

After the bill cleared the Senate  early Wednesday morning, Schwarzenegger issued a statement saying “The Senate’s action takes us one step closer toward an historic victory for California’s schools.  I called this special legislative session and proposed this package because as elected leaders, we must do everything in our power improve our schools and secure additional funding from President Obama’s multi-billion dollar national education funding competition. I urge the state Assembly to immediately pass this historic education reform package to unlock hundreds of millions of federal education dollars for our children.”

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