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California Dreaming about Race to the Top?

Fearing that the state will be ineligible, Superintendent Ramon Cortines is attempting to bypass the system.

With an education budget slashed to help close an enormous state deficit, one would expect California to be first in line when Race to the Top applications are available later this year. At $4.35 million, the fund represents the largest pool of discretionary money ever distributed by the Department of Education.

Ramon Cortines, shown above speaking at a middle school, is trying to apply directly for Race to the Top funding for LAUSD.

But when the DOE unveiled its notice of proposed priorities, requirements, definitions, and selection criteria in July, California officials were dismayed to read that in order to be eligible, a state “must not have any legal, statutory, or regulatory barriers to linking student achievement or student growth data to teachers for the purpose of teacher and principal evaluation.” California passed a law in 2006 that does just that. Arne Duncan has called such laws “mind-boggling” and “ridiculous.”

Fearing that the state could be ineligible for Race to the Top funds, Ramon Cortines, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District, is attempting to bypass the state altogether and apply for funds directly. He made his appeal in a July letter to Duncan, in which he points out that with 688,000 students, LAUSD educates more students in grades K-12 than 26 states. He outlines LAUSD’s achievements in several areas, including the use of data to guide and evaluate instruction, although he says the district has found that “year-to-year variability in teacher performance rankings gives cause for concern if used as a high-stakes accountability tool.”

Jack O'Connell is defending California's use of data in the face of criticism from the DOE.

In July, Jack O’Connell, California’s superintendent of public instruction, defended the state’s Race to the Top eligibility in both a letter to Duncan and a public appearance at the Long Beach Unified School District. O’Connell’s primary point was that the 2006 law only prevents the state from using data to evaluate teachers, not individual districts. LBUSD, a winner (in 2003) and finalist (in 2007) for the Broad Prize for Urban Education, is farther ahead than most districts in the state in using data.

Despite these attempts by Cortines and O’Connell to convince Duncan to take a second look at LAUSD and the state in general, state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), chairwoman of the Education Committee, doesn’t want to take any chances. She plans to hold hearings on whether the state law should be changed, a move that O’Connell and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would support but that would surely encounter opposition from teacher unions.