Once again, California lost out in its bid to win a share of the $4.35 billion in federal education grants under the competitive Race to the Top program. Several of those involved say that, despite what has been announced in public, it was the state’s biggest teachers’ unions failure to cooperate that ultimately sank California’s chances.
Race to the Top requires states to demonstrate that they are making large strides in instituting aggressive education reform in order to be eligible for the money. Had it been chosen, California stood to get as much as $700 million. LAUSD alone would have gotten around $120 million of that money.
Race to the Top’s admitted strategy has been to use the carrot of federal $$ to break through the logjam of politics that often keep states from reforming their failing educational systems.
California is a prime example of why the ploy is needed. We have bottom-feeding test scores, a lousy drop out rate, yet for several decades we have been hog-tied by special interests, and partisan wrangling, any time real reform is proposed.
On Tuesday morning, when state education officials got the bad news that California was not selected to get the grants, the reason why was portrayed as fairly simple, as someone close to the process explained to me.
“They said, ‘You don’t have the union buy-in, and we don’t feel you’re going to get it.”
In fact, just one-third of the active unions in the state signed on to California’s Race to the Top application. Neither of the state-wide teachers’ unions participated. The most notable and likely the most damaging regional hold out was UTLA—the union that represents the teachers of LAUSD, the nation’s second largest school district.
The issue of Race to the Top was so contentious an issue in the state’s education circles that for a while California wasn’t even going to apply for the second funding round. But Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan reportedly made a special plea to Governor Schwarzenegger to go for it.
And so the state gave it the best shot they could, given the political limitations, as Howard Blume reported for the LA Times:
The California superintendents told evaluators that they thought they could bring local unions on board, and, if they could not, they were prepared to return federal dollars accordingly. L.A. Unified has moved on that front in the last few days, with union officials signaling a willingness to negotiate over the possible inclusion of test scores as part of a reshaped, multifaceted teacher evaluation.
California’s plan focused on strategies favored by the Obama administration, such as placing the most effective educators in struggling schools and improving instruction through the improved use of data.
The state blueprint also embraced the federal endorsement of aggressive remedies, such as replacing the staff at a poorly performing school and converting it to an independently run charter school. Most charters schools are non-union, another arena of discomfort for teacher unions.
But the evaluators simply didn’t believe the state’s hopeful promise that the unions would jump aboard later, if California got the money. The official message was that the union non-participation was not the deal breaker. But in less public communication, said an insider, state officials heard that UTLA and CTA’s refusal to play ball effectively torpedoed the state’s application.
“We heard over and over again, that we had to have union buy-in,” said the insider. “And, at the end of the day, we didn’t have it.”
The fact that right before the selections, UTLA’s A.J. Duffy had such a loud and public fight with the LA Times over the Times’ series on value-added teacher evaluations, likely did not help matters, the insider added. “We keep having all these fights on the national stage. That isn’t exactly lost on the people in D.C.”
“I have always said that this race was not just about the money” said Senate Education Chair, Gloria Romero in her statement following the news. “It was about a vision for public education that is best for our children. The status quo is entrenched in our public school system. We made Herculean strides to even be able to compete and I am proud that we did not abdicate on this responsibility. But the Obama Administration’s decision today demonstrates that we need to demand even bolder changes in order to enter a new era of education renaissance in California.”
That’s a nice way of putting it.