Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called on legislators Thursday to adopt sweeping education reforms that would dramatically reshape California's public education system and qualify the state for competitive federal school funding.
The governor's proposed legislation, to be considered during a special session that ends by Oct. 5, was met almost immediately by criticism from the powerful state teacher unions, which called Schwarzenegger's plans rushed and unnecessary.
While Schwarzenegger's goal is to boost California's chances to qualify for $4.35 billion in federal grants, known as "Race to the Top," many of his proposals go far beyond those needed for eligibility, and embrace the Obama administration's key education reform proposals.
Schwarzenegger's reforms include:
* Adopting a merit pay system that would reward effective teachers and give them incentives to work at low-performing campuses;
* Abolishing the current cap on the number of charter schools that can open every year;
* Forcing school districts to shut down or reconstitute the lowest-performing schools or turn them over to charter schools' independent management;
* Allowing students at low-performing campuses to transfer to a school of their choosing;
* Requiring school districts to consider student test data when evaluating teachers, something the federal government believes is prohibited under state law.
In recent months, the Obama administration has repeatedly criticized California for failing to take the lead on reform efforts, and has singled out for scorn the state's ban on linking test scores to teachers' performance. Federal officials have said that California would be ineligible for funding if that law wasn't changed.
But in an interview Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan praised Schwarzenegger's moves as "courageous" and said they could transform the state into a national model for reform.
"This is a very significant step that absolutely has national implications," Duncan said. "The eyes of the country are going to be on California."
Several other states, including Illinois and Indiana, have changed their laws or policies to comply with federal guidelines, but Schwarzenegger's proposal "goes way beyond what other states are doing," said Baron Rodriguez of the Data Quality Center, which tracks national educational data.
The regular legislative session is scheduled to end Sept. 11, and Schwarzenegger said he wanted lawmakers to finish their work on education by early October to comply with the deadline for the first round of Race to the Top funding this winter.
But lawmakers probably will face heavy resistance from the state's teacher unions, which criticized Schwarzenegger's proposal for caving to federal demands.
At the heart of the proposal is an effort to require districts that want a piece of the federal funding to begin evaluating California teachers and schools not just by their students' achievement of a specific goal, but by their individual improvement year to year. That approach, referred to as "value-added" analysis, measures students against themselves to evaluate the effect a teacher or school has on growth.
"It's not a hammer or a gotcha," said Jim Lanich, director of the California State University's Center to Close the Achievement Gap, who cautioned that other factors besides scores should also be used in evaluation. "It tells us what is working and how we can replicate that."
But teacher unions have resisted the use of student performance for evaluation, and successfully asked for it to be banned at the state level in 2006 legislation. They are expected to fight Schwarzenegger's efforts to undo that ban, a key demand of the Obama administration.
The state, said Marty Hittelman, president of the 100,000-member California Federation of Teachers, should not mandate how local districts use student data.
And Dean Vogel, vice president of the 340,000-member California Teachers Assn., the state's largest, said the proposals weren't well thought out.
"If you're really serious about reform, it demands intense debate among the stakeholders," he said. "The way it's unfolding is rushed."
Some of the proposals would have little more than symbolic effect, educators and others said. State officials said local districts always have had the authority to evaluate teachers based on student performance, although few do.
And although the state puts a cap on new charter campuses each year under current law, it is unlikely that charters would reach that limit, which is now at 1,350.
Hittelman called the proposals a "knee-jerk reaction" and cited a recent study that showed, as a whole, charter schools do not perform better than regular campuses. Charter schools are independently run but publicly funded.
Schwarzenegger is "relying on ideas that haven't been proven to work and force them on everyone," Hittelman said.
Other proposals will force the state's Democratic lawmakers to confront the unions, among their most ardent supporters.
Historically, the state has blocked important education reform efforts, said Joe Williams of Democrats for Education Reform, a New York-based political action committee. But there have never been so many federal dollars at stake.
"Saying no to this proposal means saying no to a big chunk of money," Williams said. "California is going to be the grand-daddy of fights."