Schools race to -- where, exactly?

What wouldn’t California do for $700 million right now? That’s not a rhetorical question. With U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan parceling out more than $4 billion to states that conform to his vision of school reform, California’s Legislature is just one of dozens that are frantically revamping their states’ education systems for some of that cash. Should California succeed, its share would be somewhere between $350 million and $700 million.

To obtain the money, Sacramento must pass legislation that would serve as the basis for an application. This has given Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger a perfect opportunity to push for more parent choice and fewer restrictions on charter schools, while the teachers unions have pushed an agenda that would handcuff the charter movement. There is some merit to both sides’ proposals -- charter schools should be more accountable, and parents should have more say in the education process -- but they have been poorly executed in ways that could have negative repercussions. Applications for Duncan’s “Race to the Top” grants are due in January, so who has time for a thoughtful debate?

This isn’t how we help kids learn. Yes, $700 million could rehire a lot of teachers and buy new textbooks. But it’s a one-time grant that adds up to less than 2% of what the state spends on schools annually. California will live with the consequences of this race-to-who-knows-where legislation for a long time.

One version of the legislation lays down punitive and even contradictory rules for charter schools. Another would require school districts to reconstitute a low-performing school or turn it over to an outside operator if half the students’ parents sign a petition. That idea has merit -- empowering parents is one of the best ways to involve them in education -- but it needs refining or else hundreds of schools could be overhauled with poor planning and oversight. Starting with a pilot program would make better sense.


Almost all the changes being proposed would happen at the wonky administrative end of education -- extensive regulations on how to audit finances or track where the more experienced teachers are working. At the other end of the educational hierarchy is little De Anza Elementary in Baldwin Park, where half the students aren’t fluent in English and most are poor. As Times staff writer Seema Mehta has reported, De Anza found grants to launch an academic program after the regular school day, and within a year brought its score on the Academic Performance Index up by an astonishing 76 points. Imagine a Race to the Top application that said: If you give us $700 million, we’ll use half of it to create thousands of De Anzas. How could any federal bureaucrat resist?