Arne Duncan’s Two-by-Four: Is It Big Enough?


Posted on 21 December 2009

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By Peter Schrag
California Progress Report Columnist

There was a lot of scolding these last two weeks, both from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and much of the California press, about the state Assembly’s rejection of SB 5X 1, the Senate’s bi-partisan bill to conform California education policies to the Obama Administration’s Race to the Top school reform program.

This is not a tempest in a teapot. It reflects fundamental disagreements, some philosophical, some political, some mere turf fights, over the future of the state’s K-12 schools. Either the Senate bill, by Sen. Gloria Romero, a Los Angeles Democrat, or the Assembly substitute by Julia Brownley of Santa Monica, also a Democrat, which the governor threatened to veto, would have been likely to produce significant changes in the state’s school standards, in its testing program, in school transfer rules and parental rights, and in the reconstitution of failing schools.

And it could have a major impact on California’s eligibility for federal funds: up to $700 million in Race to the Top money, a minor amount next to the state’s needs, but possibly a lot more from other programs in the years ahead.

On Thursday, the Senate, by the narrowest of margins, approved a compromise hastily cobbled together by staff members from the governor’s office and the two houses. But it, too, has to be passed by the Assembly and probably again by the Senate before it gets to the governor. And the governor, who’s issued demands beyond the federal guidelines, may still veto it.

Given the near-unanimous opposition of the state’s school establishment to the original Romero bill – the teachers unions, the schools administrators, the school boards association -- it’s easy to understand why California’s punditry would find it nearly irresistible to condemn the California Teachers Association for once again putting its own interests over that of the state’s much-abused school children.

Where one side sees the unionized forces of the status quo, some on the other see yet another conservative attempt to nudge the state toward vouchers. (What California’s education conservatives didn’t notice as they were lining up behind the Romero bill were the suspicions of the conservative Heritage Foundation about the federal program that prompted it. If Race to the Top isn’t a step toward federalizing education what is? )

It’s hardly a simple issue. While all the bills appear to satisfy Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s guidelines for Race to the Top funds, and while they have many similarities, there are also major differences.

The differences reflect not just those fundamental disagreements; they’re also the work of interest groups trying to hitch their own agendas to bills flying the flag of the Obama program: Schwarzenegger and Republicans advancing the cause of school choice; the school establishment trying to restrict it.

All the bills commit the state to the core national academic standards in math and English being developed under the aegis of the National Governors Association and to aligning its testing program with those standards. That itself might push a state like California into yet another round of curricular revisions and yet another testing program. The federal standards also allow states to impose additional standards of their own.

The bills all strike down the barrier to the use of student test scores in the evaluation of teachers and principals, something that had already been done in prior legislation. The Senate bill also eliminated the cap on the number of charter schools that may be created. The Assembly’s did not, nor does the compromise. But because California’s cap is already higher than the federal guidelines require, that provision is unnecessary. It’s only the governor, channeling the charter school lobby, who demands it.

And while the original Romero bill made it a little harder to shut down a mismanaged or poorly performing charter school, the Brownley bill created an accountability process that requires charter operators to demonstrate adequacy equal to similar non-charter schools. Brownley also allowed school districts and other agencies granting charters to look at applicants’ prior record in operating charters. In light of the number of charter schools that have failed or have turned into scams, it seemed a reasonable provision.

All the bills create new procedures for tuning around low performing schools, as the feds require. The original Romero bill would also have made it easier for parents to force major changes in low performing schools; the compromise limits that process to 75 schools.

The Senate bills also create an “open enrollment” process allowing children in the state’s consistently low performing schools – those in the bottom 30 percent, changed to 10 percent in the compromise bill -- to transfer not only to better schools in their own district, as current law allows, but to move to better schools in other districts.

That, too, raised questions: Who pays for transportation between districts? And what power did so-called receiving districts have to reject students coming in from other districts and on what basis could they be turned down? Could a district reject special education students who cost more than they brought in state and federal funds?

Opponents of open enrollment argued that the Race to the Top guidelines didn’t require any inter-district transfer program at all. Defenders like Bill Lucia of the pro-choice group EdVoice argued that in spirit open enrollment, by allowing more students to escape from the failing schools in which they’re trapped, was entirely consistent with it.

In addition there was a battle about the formula for distributing the new federal money. Should it be divided 50-50 between the state and the district, or should it be 20-80, as the school people demanded (and the Brownley bill provided)?

Part of the legislature’s difficulty last week was dealing with those and other difficult issues that Race to the Top raises – many of which have resisted decades of reform efforts – and do it in very little time, something that gives special interest groups with their own agendas additional leverage..

The hurry comes from the mid-January deadline for the first round of applications for Race to the Top funds, a pot of over $4 billion to be divided by Education Secretary Arne Duncan among states demonstrating a capacity and willingness to improve their schools. What the program seems to show, at least in California, is that the offer of a little money in the right places can draw a lot of attention. But whether California can convert the attention to something constructive is still unresolved. 

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Peter Schrag, whose exclusive weekly column appears in the California Progress Report, is the former editorial page editor and columnist of the Sacramento Bee. He is the author of Paradise Lost: California’s Experience, America’s Future and California: America’s High Stakes Experiment. His new book, Not Fit for Our Society: Nativism, Eugenics, Immigration will be published early in 2010. Starting next week, Peter Schrag's column will run on Mondays.

Taxpayers would probably be pleased to hear that the Department of the Corrections & Rehabilitation (DC&R) will save $15 million by closing three contract facilities. They might not be quite as pleased if they realized that each contract bed costs $30,000 less annually to operate than standard prison beds. DC&R has only 3% of its population in contract beds compared to Texas with over 9%. They would probably be puzzled to hear that the DC&R is currently building 2,900 prison beds at a cost of $216,606 each. Some might think the DC&R should add 25,000 contract beds, rather than close them, just because it would reduce prison operating costs by about $759 million annually.

There is a logical explanation for simultaneously closing prison beds that save money and building new prison beds that cost a lot money to build and operate. The DC&R just doesn’t like contract beds.

It is always fashionable to attack the California Teachers' Association when it tries to improve education. Some people presume that the CTA is only looking out for more money for its members. As any union does, CTA does look out for the welfare of its members; however it's only when there is a sound education system do the members and students benefit. The $700 million "pork" from the federal government is not worth the changes that the government demands. Though there can be some causal relation between student scores and teacher performamce, it is so intangible as not to be a reliable standard. Though there are probably some "bad" teachers, the majority are very devoted and capable.They cannot overcome what some students experience in the home. Contrary to the myth spread about, "bad" teachers can be fired if administrators know how evaluate and the teacher given a chance to improve. If this doesn't work, then the district must develop a solid case in court.