Democrats balk at some Federal stimulus dollars

The federal government is offering billions of dollars to states to help meet shortfalls in education funding. But many Democrats in Sacramento are saying they may not want the money.

The money is being made available as part of the federal stimulus package. The program, known as the Race to the Top, will provide federal funding to states who agree to make policy changes to their education system.

Among the changes required to qualify for the money would be linking teacher performance to student achievement, changing the state’s accountability data system, increasing public school choice for parents, allowing for more charter schools and several other policy changes.

Most of the proposals from the Obama administration are not new ideas. Some, like the idea of merit pay for teachers or linking teacher success to student performance, have been opposed by teachers unions in the past, and continue to face stiff resistance in the Legislature.

Gov. Schwarzenegger has pushed hard for the funds, and has called a special legislative session to get the state to make statutory changes so that California can submit its application for the money. The governor has received bipartisan support for his proposal, introduced as SB 1 5x, including backing from Democrat Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, a candidate for state superintendent in 2010.
In a recent op-ed in the Sacramento Bee, Romero extolled the federal proposals.

“This isn’t about the money,” she wrote. “The Race to the Top, with its emphasis on turning around historically lowest-performing schools, is about equality and opportunity for all students. It is about no longer turning a blind eye to dropout factories and low-performing schools.”

The Assembly has convened a legislative committee to hear from experts about the various proposals. Advocates for the policy changes, and for trying for the federal money, have charged the process is aimed at slowing down the state’s application process, and ensuring California is not eligible for the funds.

At a hearing Tuesday in the state Capitol, many Democrats articulated a reluctance to chase after the federal money.
“If we make these changes,. there could be a cost to the state and the local districts,” said Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco. “This may not be the time for it.”

Democrat Jose Solorio, D-Santa Ana, warned against making major education policy changes simply to go after a few federal dollars. “We should make sure these are the type of reforms we think are good anyway,” he said.

About one dozen states will receive these federal education grants. While the program has been funded with $4 billion on a one-time basis, federal officials have strongly suggested that states that receive the grants, and make progress in the statutory changes sought by the Obama administration, will be eligible for continuing federal assistance.

The state’s formal application for the funds must be signed by the governor, the state superintendent of public instruction, the president of the state board of education and the attorney general.

One Assembly source said they expect the state will submit a formal application for the funds but quipped, “we may not win any style points.”

Meanwhile, the Schwarzenegger administration has been trying to kick-start the process. The governor met with Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan last month, and called a special legislative session to deal with the proposal. The Senate is expected to convene the session sometime this month, but it was unclear what, if anything, the Assembly planned to do.

Administration officials have been frustrated at the Legislature’s apparent reluctance to go after up to $800 million in federal dollars while other states appear to be much further along in their application processes.

According to estimates from the state legislative analyst, the grants could mean hundreds of millions of dollars for California. And Schwarzenegger has made clear that he wants to get as much of that money as he can.

But others have balked at making long-term policy changes for money that may or may not be there in future years. And many of the proposals have stirred up old debates, and old battles, over education policy.

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