California’s entry into the latest Race to the Top looking unlikely

Gov. Jerry Brown and state schools chief Tom Torlakson have yet to indicate their interest in two upcoming Race to the Top grant competitions – despite the fact that the federal government is expected to release the applications any day now.

California is eligible for both federal competitions – one that focuses on early childhood education for grants up to $500 million; and a separate and smaller grant of up to $50 million for states that were losers in the two prior rounds.

Governors in 36 states have already told the U.S. Department of Education that they want to compete for the early education dollars, which will go out to states by the end of 2011.

And a coalition of California school districts has expressed interest in applying for the smaller program.

But Brown said he will not commit until after the guidelines – presumably for both competitions – have been released.

“The administration will make a reasoned decision based on the final requirements,” said Elizabeth Ashford, a spokeswoman for Brown, in an email Tuesday.

Officials from the California Department of Education declined comment for this story.

Meanwhile, the coalition of seven big-district superintendents that were finalists in last year’s competition but not a grant winner have plans to meet in August to discuss their next application. The group, known as the California Office to Reform Education, is made up of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Sacramento, Fresno, San Francisco, Sanger, and Clovis school districts.

“We intend and want to be able to apply. We’re going with the expectation that the guidelines will be privy to the work we’re already doing and want to continue doing,” said Rick Miller, an education consultant who is the executive director of CORE.

Miller, who also led the state’s first Race to the Top application as a deputy superintendent at the California Department of Education, said he understood why Brown and Torlakson have not yet committed because “they don’t know what they are saying yes to,” he said. 

Indeed, governors and state school chiefs in other states have opted out of the Race to the Top competition altogether over concerns of too much federal oversight as well as some program requirements including the push to link teacher pay with student test scores.

But supporters of the Obama change agenda are watching Brown for his reaction to the landmark federal competition, which has generally been disliked by many of the governor’s core supporters including teacher groups and school employee associations.

“This will be a bit of a test for him with respect to his education credentials,” said Gloria Romero, former state Senator and one-time schools chief contender who is now state director of Democrats for Education Reform, a national political action committee.

“As much as we need this money, it’s not so much about the money – it’s about standing squarely in the reform column. And that’s what I believe we’re going to be looking at,” she said.

In the smaller competition for the former runners-up, grant awards have decreased significantly since the prior round and federal officials have said they would reduce the scope of requirements and automatically fund any state that fulfills them, said Miller.  

That means they could either maintain the four former priorities – strengthening college and career readiness, data systems, effective teachers and principals in high need areas, and turning around low performing schools – or narrow the focus down to one area, he explained.

Top officials in Washington have suggested that although California lost the first two rounds of Race to the Top, the state’s chances may be better this time.  

“If you ask me if I had liked to fund California, the answer is absolutely yes,” said U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan in January after California lost the competition for the second time.  

CORE submitted the state’s application last year, but it was supported and signed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former State Superintendent Jack O’Connell.

As state Attorney General, Brown also signed the application, but only to validate its legal credibility. He has criticized Race to the Top in the past.

In a 2009 letter to federal officials, Brown – then a candidate for governor – called the competition a ‘top down’, ‘one size firts all’ and ‘command and control’ approach to education.

That said, it’s hard to gauge what approach the governor will take this time.

Bill Lucia, CEO of the Sacramento advocacy group EdVoice, noted the unpredictability of the administration that ardently promotes local school control but also approved an unusually prescriptive state budget.

“We’ll have to wait and see what the real trajectory is for the new administration,” he wrote in an email.


Cabinet Report is the only comprehensive news service covering K-12 education issues in California. To subscribe visit Registration required. Selected stories have been shared with Capitol Weekly with permission from School Innovations & Advocacy, owner and publisher. 

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